Federal Court Refuses to Delay Prison Gerrymandering Suit

The Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others, won an important ruling on May 8, 2019 that opens a path to a possible trial challenging the State of Connecticut’s practice known as prison gerrymandering. The lawsuit is the first in the nation to take on a statewide practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the legislative districts where they are held, rather than in their home districts.

Judge Warren W. Eginton denied a motion by the state to stay all proceedings during the pendency of defendants’ unusual interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit.

“[T]he Court finds that defendants’ appeal on the basis of the 11th Amendment is frivolous,” Judge Eginton wrote in an opinion Wednesday. “[P]laintiffs have alleged a plausible claim of an on-going equal protection violation seeking prospective relief.”

“We applaud Judge Eginton’s thoughtful decision allowing our case to move forward pending disposition of the government’s frivolous appeal to the Second Circuit,” said NAACP General Counsel Bradford M. Berry ’88. “We hope the Second Circuit quickly disposes of the government’s appeal so that the plaintiffs can receive a decision on the merits of our claims at the soonest possible time. Nothing less than the integrity of our representative form of government is at stake.”

The suit, NAACP et al. v. Merrill, was filed in June 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. The complaint alleges that prison gerrymandering violates Connecticut residents’ constitutional rights to the one-person, one-vote principle by inflating the power of predominantly white rural districts, where many prisons are located, to the detriment of urban districts, where many incarcerated persons have a permanent residence. The plaintiffs, who included the NAACP Connecticut State Conference and individual NAACP members, seek to compel Connecticut to adopt a new redistricting map that counts incarcerated individuals in their home state legislative districts rather than in the districts where they are incarcerated.

“All people in the state of Connecticut deserve to have their one person, one vote rights upheld. But prison gerrymandering quashes those rights by inflating the votes of people in rural districts while weakening those of people living in cities,” said Justin Farmer, a named plaintiff in the suit and a member of the city of Hamden's Legislative Council. “By counting incarcerated people where they’re held rather than where they live, the state harms voters across Connecticut, and especially people of color,” added Farmer, a registered voter in a Connecticut state house district that includes parts of the cities of Hamden and New Haven.

In February, Judge Eginton rejected defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. But rather than proceeding into discovery, and letting the case move into the merits, the Governor and Secretary of the State tried to halt and ultimately end the case with an unusual appeal to the Second Circuit.

“As Judge Eginton’s decision makes clear, voters’ whose rights have been infringed must have their day in court,” said Scot X. Esdaile, President of the NAACP Connecticut State Conference. “It’s time for this case to move forward and for the courts to end this harmful and unconstitutional practice.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic, the NAACP Office of the General Counsel, and Rosen & Associates, P.C.