City wins appeal in redistricting case

Panel finds city's 2012 plan ‘easily passes constitutional muster’; ACLU mulls new filing

The Cranston Herald ·

An appeals court has overturned a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling in a challenge to the city’s counting of prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions when drawing ward maps.

In their opinion issued Sept. 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit panel of Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard and Circuit Judges Sandra Lynch and William Kayatta Jr. find the city’s 2012 redistricting plan “easily passes constitutional muster,” and that Cranston’s “longstanding tradition of districting by total population based on the Census aligns with the practice of the large majority of states.”

Robert Coupe, director of administration for Mayor Allan Fung, said the city is “very happy with the outcome.” He said the ruling from the appeals court judges “took pretty much the same position the city had been taking throughout the process,” and he is “confident we’re on solid ground right now” in terms of any further legal challenge.

“The city’s victory in this case not only protects the integrity of the electoral process from undue political influence, but also saves taxpayers from having to foot the bill for [the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island] legal fees, which would have been paid by the city if we had conceded the appeal as proposed by some members of the City Council,” he said in a follow-up statement.

Meanwhile, the ACLU – one of the plaintiffs in the case – said through a statement it will “strongly be considering filing a petition for rehearing of the case before the entire First Circuit.”

“We respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the First Circuit’s ruling,” reads the joint statement the ALCU, Demos, and the Prison Policy Institute. “We believe the panel misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s recent Evenwel v. Abbott case as vindicating the city’s position when it did no such thing. As a result of that misinterpretation, the panel opinion fails to adequately address the critical ‘one person, one vote’ implications of Cranston’s use of prison gerrymandering to overinflate the representation of constituents in the school committee and city council districts where the ACI is located.”

The plaintiffs in the case, known as Davidson et al. vs. the City of Cranston, argue the city’s current practice violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

At particular issue is Ward 6, in which the prison sits, and the redistricting plan adopted in 2010 based on the 2010 Census. The plaintiffs argue the counting of prisoners – who are not “true constituents” – when drawing ward lines results in diminished representation for residents of the other five wards.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux in May sided with the plaintiffs, deeming the city’s existing practice “constitutionally untenable.”

“[T]he district lines for Cranston’s wards serve to dilute the voting strength and political influence of the residents of wards 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, thereby causing an infringement of the individual constitutional rights of the residents of those wards,” he wrote.

Fung’s administration appealed the ruling, defending the 2012 redistricting as in keeping with longstanding practice and pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

The case led to some politically charged moments at City Hall. In the wake of Lagueux’s ruling, the council’s Redistricting Committee met to devise a new ward map in compliance with the judge’s order to do so within 30 days.

The committee initially considered three options, and two others were developed based on council member requests. The committee ultimately recommended an option titled 2016D, which drew criticism from Republicans who asserted it was designed to weaken the re-election bid of incumbent first-term Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas.

A planned vote of the full council on that map was postponed indefinitely after the appeals court granted the Fung administration’s request for a stay of Lagueux’s order. Several Democratic council members were highly critical of the administration’s appeal and the costs involved with continued legal action.