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Judge orders stay on Rensselaer lawsuit against Green Light NY

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Immigrants pray in front of a government building in San Francisco, California. A judge in New York ordered a stay in the proceedings of a lawsuit filed by a county clerk against New York’s Green Light Law.
October 9, 2019 05:40 pm

A county clerk’s lawsuit challenging a New York state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses has been ordered stayed by a judge in the Northern District of New York.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe last week put a pause on Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola’s lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and state Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder, awaiting development of a similar lawsuit that was filed by Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns in the Western District of New York prior to Merola’s case.

“Defendants argue that a stay pending the Western District’s resolution of a motion to dismiss and a motion for a preliminary injunction would ‘allow the parties and, ultimately, the court to take into account the decision of’ the Western District,” Sharpe wrote in his decision. “...for some of the reasons identified by defendants, a stay is appropriate.”

Kearns filed a lawsuit in July, the month after the controversial Green Light law was narrowly passed by the state Legislature and signed by Cuomo. Merola’s lawsuit was filed about two weeks after.

Government officials estimate 265,000 immigrants will be seeking driver’s licenses within the first few years of Green Light.

Under the new law, local departments of motor vehicles and county clerk offices are prohibited from sharing private information about individuals applying for licenses with immigration enforcement agencies. Both county clerks’ lawsuits argued that under federal law, it is a felony to withhold information about undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement agencies.

The defendants in Merola’s lawsuit also asked the judge to transfer the case to the Western District of New York to be combined with Kearns’ suit, considering the similarities of the two cases, which Sharpe denied.

“I think it was just what we expected but we are thrilled that the judge ruled to keep the cases separate,” Merola said in an email. “It is almost like having two bites at the apple.”

Sharpe ordered both parties in Merola’s lawsuit to report back to him by Nov. 1, or as soon as any decision or action is made in Kearns’ lawsuit.  

A hearing is scheduled for the motions to dismiss and for a preliminary injunction in Kearns’ lawsuit on Oct. 23.

However, the Department of Justice is considering weighing in on the lawsuit, and filed a motion last week asking to extend their deadline to intervene to Nov. 12.

If the department intervenes, it will be determining the constitutionality of Title 8, Section 1373 of the U.S. code, which prohibits concealing information of undocumented immigrants from immigration enforcement agencies.

Those who believe Green Light is legally sound argue that Title 8 violates the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees states’ authority over policy matters not delegated to the federal government — and which the Supreme Court ruled on last year.

James has vowed to aggressively defend the law, which she has described as a safety matter. Green Light would bring more insured drivers and New York state-inspected vehicles on the roads, as well as result in fewer hit-and-run crashes. The law is expected to generate $83 million in revenue the first year, and $57 million each year after that, according to the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute.

New York is one of 13 states to adopt legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at mmikati@columbiagreenemedia.com, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.