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Stories about New York

Costa Constantinides resigns from New York City Council

Costa Constantinides resigned from the New York City Council on April 9 after announcing he would leave to take a position as CEO of the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens on March 31. Constantinides had served as the District 22 representative since 2013. His current term was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021.

The New York City Council is the city’s primary legislative body. It is responsible for adopting the city budget, approving mayoral appointees, overseeing the use of municipal properties, levying taxes, and making or amending city laws, policies, and ordinances.

The New York City Council is composed of 51 members, each of whom are elected in partisan elections by the city’s fifty-one districts. The current partisan composition is 45 Democrats and three Republicans with three vacancies. The city’s charter requires Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to schedule a special election to fill the vacancy left by Constantinides’ departure.

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New York becomes third state to legalize recreational marijuana through legislative action instead of a ballot measure

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill on March 31 legalizing recreational marijuana and allowing resentencing for those convicted of certain marijuana-related charges.

Both chambers of the legislature passed the bill (Assembly Bill 1248/Senate Bill 854) on March 30.

New York became the 15th state to legalize recreational marijuana. In addition, South Dakota voters approved a marijuana legalization initiative in November 2020, but it was overturned by a circuit court ruling, which was appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court. Fifteen additional states have decriminalized recreational marijuana.

New York was the third state, after Vermont and Illinois, to legalize recreational marijuana through legislative action instead of a voter-approved ballot measure. The first nine states to legalize recreational marijuana did so through citizen-initiated ballot initiatives. 

Responding to legalization in New York, Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said, “We expect 2021 to be a record-breaking year for legislatures legalizing cannabis.” 

Marijuana laws in the United States

Details of New York’s bill:

The bill allows the possession of up to three ounces of marijuana and allows each person to grow up to three mature marijuana plants with a cap of six mature plants per household. The legalization of possession and home-grow goes into effect immediately.

The bill establishes the Office of Cannabis Management to license and regulate recreational marijuana retail and distribution. The new office will also take over the regulation of medical marijuana sales. The office will be run by a board consisting of three members appointed by the governor, one member appointed by the Assembly, and one appointed by the Senate. The bill does not establish a specific date by which legal recreational marijuana sales would begin, but state officials estimated it would be between 18 months and two years. The bill also establishes an advisory board for the office.

The bill will create expungement and resentencing processes for anyone convicted on a charge that is no longer a crime under the new law. It would also allow for the expungement of certain convictions that occurred prior to the state’s 2019 decriminalization law but for which sentences were reduced or removed by decriminalization.

The bill provides for a 13% excise tax on retail marijuana sales. It also enacts a tax ranging from $0.03 to $0.08 per milligram of THC for wholesale to dispensaries. Gov. Cuomo’s office estimated revenue of $350 million annually. Revenue above what is required for administration and enforcement would be allocated to the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, general education through the State Lottery Fund, the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund, and local municipal and county governments.

The bill allows for cities, towns, and villages to pass local laws prohibiting certain retail establishments and regulating certain aspects of the operation of retail establishments. The bill also contains a process for local voters to overturn local legislation banning recreational marijuana retail.

Comparing New York’s bill with legalization measures in other states

Among the 13 marijuana legalization ballot measures that have passed in other states, all but one explicitly allowed a certain amount of local government control over marijuana regulation. Excise taxes on marijuana sales ranged from an initial rate of 3.75% (subject to increase) in Massachusetts to 25% in Washington. The average tax rate was about 13%. The New Jersey ballot measure applied the state’s sales tax to marijuana but prohibited an additional excise tax.

Seventeen states and D.C. have enacted laws expunging past marijuana convictions, sealing marijuana crime records, or establishing set-aside policies that apply to marijuana-related convictions.

For a comparison of details on possession limits, tax rates, home grow regulations, local control, and revenue allocation among all recreational marijuana ballot measures approved so far, click here.

As of March 2021, 15 states and Washington, D.C., had legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Eleven states and D.C. did so through citizen initiatives, one through a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, and three, including New York, through bills approved by state legislatures and signed by governors. An additional 15 states had decriminalized recreational marijuana usage. Based on 2019 population estimates, roughly 40% percent of Americans lived in a jurisdiction with legalized recreational marijuana as of March 2021.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana when voters approved legalization initiatives.

In January 2018, Vermont was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana without voters approving a citizen initiative. Illinois was the second state to legalize recreational marijuana without a voter-approved citizen initiative.

In 2020, New Jersey was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through voter approval of a legislatively referred measure, rather than a citizen-initiated one.



New York Court of Appeals justice retires, creating midterm vacancy

On March 23, 2021, State of New York Court of Appeals Justice Paul Feinman retired from the court, citing health concerns. 

Justice Feinman joined the State of New York Court of Appeals in 2017. He was appointed to the court by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Feinman was the first openly gay judge confirmed to serve on the state’s highest court.

Before serving on the state supreme court, Feinman was a judge with the New York County Supreme Court, Civil Term in the 1st Judicial District from 2008 to 2017. He was also appointed to the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department in 2012. From 1996 to 1997 and again in 2001 to 2003, Feinman served as a judge with the New York City Civil Court. From 1997 to 2000, he served as a judge with the New York City Criminal Courts.

The seven justices of the New York Court of Appeals serve 14-year terms. They are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission, pending confirmation from the New York Senate.

The current chief justice of the court is Janet DiFiore, who was appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015. 

The other five active justices of the court are:

• Jenny Rivera – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2013

• Eugene Fahey – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015

• Michael Garcia – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2016

• Rowan Wilson – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017

• Leslie Stein – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015

Justice Leslie Stein is scheduled to retire from the court on June 4, 2021, and Justice Eugene Fahey has scheduled his retirement for December 31, 2021.

In 2021, there have been 11 supreme court vacancies in nine of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have been caused by retirements. 

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Special election approaches Feb. 23 in New York City Council District 31

The special general election for New York City Council District 31 is on February 23, 2021. Nine candidates are competing in the special election. The filing deadline to run passed on December 16, 2020. 

The special election was called when Donovan Richards left office after he was elected Queens Borough President in November. Richards served on the city council from 2013 to 2020.

The February 23 election will be the second election in New York City to use a ranked-choice voting system. In 2019, New Yorkers passed a ballot measure that instituted ranked-choice voting in special elections to local offices.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. 

Ranked-choice voting in New York City is the subject of an ongoing court challenge. On December 16, 2020, a state trial court declined to block the implementation of ranked-choice voting, but the decision is being appealed.  

The New York City Council consists of 51 members. New York is the largest city by population in the U.S.

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New York voters to decide constitutional amendment about environmental rights in November

Voters in New York will decide a ballot measure to add a right to clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment to the New York Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The ballot measure would make New York the third state, after Pennsylvania and Montana, to adopt an environmental rights amendment. Pennsylvania and Montana both adopted their amendments in the 1970s.

In New York, a constitutional amendment requires approval in two successive legislation sessions to go on the ballot. Legislators approved the proposal in 2019 and 2021. On January 12, 2021, the state Senate voted 48 to 14 to approve the amendment. Senate Democrats supported the proposal, and Senate Republicans were divided 6 to 14. On February 8, the state Assembly voted 124 to 25, with support from all Democrats, 17 Republicans, and the chamber’s one Independence Party member.

The 15-word constitutional amendment reads: “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

State Sen. Robert Jackson (D-31) sponsored the proposal in the Senate. He said, “This language will finally put in place safeguards that require the government to consider the environment and our relationship to the Earth in decision making. If the government fails in that responsibility, New Yorkers will finally have the right to take legal action for a clean environment because it will be in the State Constitution.”

State Sen. Dan Stec (R-45), who voted against the constitutional amendment, stated, “I’m all for clean air and clean water. Who isn’t? But in the face of ambiguity you will have distrust, you will have lawsuits, you will have costs, and I’m trying to avoid that.”

The election on November 2, 2021, could feature as many as six amendments to the New York Constitution. The Environmental Rights Amendment is the second approved for the ballot after legislators referred a redistricting measure on January 20, 2021. Since 1995, New Yorkers have approved 76.0% (19 of 25) of the constitutional amendments that have appeared on their ballots.

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Anthony Brindisi (D) concedes in New York’s 22nd Congressional District election

Incumbent Anthony Brindisi (D) conceded the election to represent New York’s 22nd Congressional District on Feb. 8, 2021, to Claudia Tenney (R). His concession follows several months of legal challenges from Brindisi and Tenney over the validity of certain absentee and affidavit ballots cast in the Nov. 3, 2020, election.

Brindisi announced his concession hours after the New York Board of Elections voted to certify the results of the election. Tenney led by 109 votes.

In a statement, Brindisi said: “Today I congratulated Claudia Tenney and offered to make the transition process as smooth as possible on behalf of our community. […] It is time to close the book on this election and focus on building a better community and more united country for our children.”

Tenney responded to Brindisi’s Feb. 8 concession in a tweet: “I really appreciate Anthony’s call today and thank him for his service. He graciously offered to help ensure a smooth transition and I look forward to working with him over the coming days to complete that process on behalf of everyone in NY22.”

To read more about the legal proceedings in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, click here.



New York voters to decide redistricting-related constitutional amendment at the 2021 general election

Voters in New York will decide at least one constitutional amendment at the election on November 2, 2021. On January 20, 2021, the State Assembly approved an amendment that would make changes to the redistricting process in New York, including for the redistricting cycle based on the 2020 U.S. Census. The state Senate approved the amendment on January 12. Both legislative chambers also approved the amendment in 2020. The New York Constitution requires that constitutional amendments be approved during two successive legislative sessions before going to voters.

In the state Senate, the vote was 42 to 20. Senate Democrats voted ‘yes’ on the amendment, and Senate Republicans voted ‘no’ on the amendment. In the state Assembly, the vote was 100 to 50. Most Assembly Democrats (99 of 106) voted ‘yes’ on the amendment, and seven Democrats and all 43 Republicans voted ‘no’ on the amendment.

New Yorkers last voted on, and approved, a redistricting ballot measure in 2014, titled Proposal 1. It established a 10-member redistricting commission to design congressional and state legislative maps and send them to the state legislature for an up-or-down vote. Under Proposal 1, the state Legislature cannot amend the redistricting plans unless two separate sets of plans are rejected. Eight of the redistricting commission’s members are appointed by majority and minority party legislative leaders. These eight members appoint the remaining two members, who cannot be registered with the two largest legislative officeholding political parties in the state. Based on the current partisan makeup of the state Legislature, the commission is designed to include four Democratic-appointed commissioners, four Republican-appointed commissioners, and two commissioners who are not Democrats or Republicans. The 2021 proposal would not change the makeup of the commission. 

This year’s constitutional amendment would change vote requirements for the commission and legislature to adopt plans. Proposal 1 of 2014 created vote requirements based on party control of the legislature. For the commission, seven of 10 commissioners must agree to a plan for it to pass. If party control of the legislature is divided, at least one member appointed by the Senate temporary president and one member appointed by the Assembly Speaker must vote for the plan. If one party controls both legislative chambers, at least one member appointed by each of the two majority party leaders and two minority party leaders must vote for the plan. The 2021 amendment would eliminate the requirements that specific appointees support the plans. Instead, approval by seven members would be required regardless of who appointed those seven members. 

Under Proposal 1, a simple majority vote is required in the state legislature to adopt maps if legislative control is divided. If one party controls both chambers, a two-thirds majority is required. Currently, Democrats control both chambers of the legislature. The 2021 amendment would require a simple majority vote regardless of how party power is distributed in the legislature.

The 2021 amendment would make additional changes to the redistricting process in New York. The ballot measure would cap the number of state senators at 63, which was the number of state senators as of 2021. New York would be required to count residents of the entire state, including people who are residents but not citizens, should the federal census fail to do so. New York would also be required to count incarcerated persons at the place of their last residence for redistricting purposes. The ballot measure would remove the block-on-border requirement for state Senate districts. It would also change the timeline for redistricting, moving up several dates, and remove inoperative language from the constitution. 

The New York State Legislature could place several other constitutional amendments on the ballot in 2021, including several related to electoral policy and an environmental rights amendment.

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Filing deadline approaches in New York City Council special elections

Candidates interested in running in the special elections for New York City Council Districts 11 and 15 have until January 19, 2021, to file. The general election is scheduled for March 23.

The special election in District 11 was called after Andrew Cohen (D) won the November election for New York Supreme Court 12th Judicial District. Cohen served on the council from 2013 to 2021. 

In District 15, the special election was called when Ritchie Torres (D) was elected to represent New York’s 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House. Torres served from 2013 to 2021.

In 2019, New Yorkers passed a ballot measure that instituted ranked-choice voting in special elections to local offices. In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority. 

Ranked-choice voting in New York City is the subject of an ongoing court challenge. On December 16, 2020, a state trial court declined to block the implementation of ranked-choice voting in a February city council special election. The decision is currently being appealed.  

The New York City Council consists of 51 members. New York is the largest city by population in the U.S.

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State supreme court vacancies in 2021

So far in 2021, there have been two new state supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies have both been caused by retirements. 

In Colorado, Chief Justice Nathan Coats retired on January 1, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) appointed Maria Berkenkotter to the Colorado Supreme Court on November 20, 2020. Berkenkotter is Polis’ first nominee to the seven-member supreme court. In South Dakota, Chief Justice David Gilbertson retired in early January, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 years old. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) appointed Scott P. Myren to the South Dakota Supreme Court on October 28, 2020.

Currently, Maine is the only appointment state which had a vacancy in 2020 which has yet to be filled.

Three more states will see vacancies from retirement on their state supreme courts in 2021:

• Joel Bolger, June 30, 2021, Alaska

• Leslie Stein, June 4, 2021, New York

• Eugene Fahey, December 31, 2021, New York

In Alaska, the vacancy will be filled by Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy. Both of the vacancies on the New York Supreme Court will be filled by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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Election still undecided in New York’s 22nd Congressional District

Results in the Nov. 3 U.S. House election in New York’s 22nd Congressional District have not yet been certified. The latest vote count, completed on Dec. 30, showed former Rep. Claudia Tenney (R) with a 29-vote lead over incumbent Anthony Brindisi (D). This race was one of 56 U.S. House rematches from 2018, when Brindisi defeated Tenney 51% to 49%.

Litigation over the validity of certain absentee and affidavit ballots began the day following the election and is ongoing. Problems with mislaid ballots, missing documentation of ballot challenges, and errors in vote tabulation slowed the process.

Oswego County Supreme Court Justice Scott DelConte has not made a final ruling on these issues, and official results have not been certified. DelConte also asked both campaigns to file legal briefs by Jan. 14 on 2,418 voter registration applications submitted through the Department of Motor Vehicles that the county board of elections did not process before election day. These voters had the option to cast an affidavit ballot, but these ballots weren’t counted since it appeared the voters weren’t registered. At least 63 affidavit ballots from this group are being reviewed.

Final oral arguments on all court proceedings in the case are scheduled for Jan. 22.

Here are some other recent elections where the result was not confirmed until weeks after the elections:

  1. In 2018, the North Carolina Board of Elections did not certify the results in the 9th Congressional District race and voted unanimously to call for a new election on Feb. 21, 2019. Rep. Dan Bishop (R) won the special election on Sept. 10, 2019. 
  2. In the 2016 North Carolina governor’s race, incumbent Pat McCrory (R) conceded on Dec. 5, 2016, after a recount in Durham County verified that Roy Cooper (D) would remain ahead. 
  3. In 2014, Martha McSally (R) was declared the winner over incumbent Ron Barber (D) in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District at the conclusion of a recount on Dec. 17, 2014.