Judge Rejects Kearns' Lawsuit over Green Light Law

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Photo credit Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns during a Friday press conference/Photo WBEN Tim Wenger

Buffalo, NY (WBEN) - A federal judge has dismissed one of several lawsuits challenging a New York law set to allow immigrants without legal documents to seek driver's licenses.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford dismissed Friday a lawsuit brought by Republican Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns. The lawsuit called New York's law unconstitutional and sought to block its Dec. 14 rollout.

But a judge said Kearns lacked standing to bring the lawsuit because he didn't show that he'd be harmed under the law.

State Attorney General Tish James announced the ruling on Twitter Friday: 

“Today’s decision reinforces our position all along — the Green Light law is legal and enforceable. The law aims to make our roads safer, our economy stronger, and allows immigrants to come out of the shadows to sign up as legal drivers in our state. That’s why the claims made in this lawsuit not only disregarded these simple truths, but were misinformed and disregarded the privacy rights of New Yorkers. As the state’s attorney and chief law enforcement officer, I am proud to have vigorously defended this law and will continue to do so against all who oppose it. I, and New Yorkers across this state, thank the court for their time and judicious decision.”

A judge just dismissed a case against New York's Green Light law.The law aims to make our roads safer and our economy stronger.We will continue to defend it. pic.twitter.com/DHcmkci5aE

— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) November 8, 2019

Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns stood before reporters Friday afternoon and emphatically criticized the action by the judge and said, "If a county clerk can't bring this lawsuit, then who the hell can?"  Kearns will confer on the matter with other clerks statewide before announcing any additional actions. Kearns told reporters that the judge "punted" her responsibilities.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz issued the following statement following Kearns' response to the court action today:

“Today, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford issued her decision in the matter of Kearns v. Cuomo et al., 1:19-CV-00902 (WDNY 2019) in regards to Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns’ suit to prevent the enforcement of the New York State Driver’s License and Privacy Act, more commonly known as the “Green Light Law.” In the decision, Judge Wolford dismissed all claims of Clerk Kearns for “lack of subject matter jurisdiction,”[1> primarily for a lack of standing to sue by Clerk Kearns and that any possible injury to him was purely speculative in nature.
Furthermore, Judge Wolford noted that if Clerk Kearns chooses to not comply with the law “his claimed exposure to criminal prosecution under federal law would disappear”[2> and if he does enforce it is highly speculative that he would be prosecuted considering “numerous states and territories have laws that do not condition the issuance of a driver’s license (or comparable driving credential) on proof of lawful immigration status, and the federal government has never prosecuted anyone for compliance therewith.”[3>
As Judge Wolford noted, “just because an issue is hotly debated does not mean that a federal court can step in and resolve the dispute – the court must be first satisfied that is has the authority to get involved.”[4>  The same standard must be applied in a representative democracy – regardless of whether we like a law, we do not get to choose which laws we enforce.
Clerk Kearns, like every other elected official in our county, has sworn to uphold the laws of the United States and the State of New York. We do not get to choose whether we will enforce a law, and only a court can declare a law unconstitutional. Until such time as a law is determined to be unconstitutional we must enforce all laws. Otherwise we cease to be representative democracy.
The Erie County Clerk’s Office is purely ministerial in nature – it does not propose nor pass laws – and is simply the designated arm of New York State to issue driver’s licenses. Considering the well-reasoned decision, and the doubtful result that any appeal would be successful, I fully expect Clerk Kearns and his staff to do their ministerial job and enforce the laws that are passed by New York. To do so otherwise will put the county at risk for lawsuits and the unnecessary damages that could result therefrom.
Finally, I commend the staff of the County Attorney’s Office for making a good-faith effort on behalf of the Clerk. While as an attorney I always believed the law would be found constitutional or the case dismissed for lack of standing (as occurred), the members of the County Attorney’s Office made as good an effort as possible arguing on behalf of the Clerk. The decision rendered today has nothing to do with the effort rendered by them, but on the lack of standing to prosecute this action by the Clerk.”

Similar lawsuits are pending in two other counties.

Supporters say licenses would help immigrants work, transport their family and apply for college and housing. Opponents argue licenses shouldn't be given to people who are in violation of federal immigration rules.