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New York judge rules in inmate legislative districting case

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - A New York law that requires prison inmates to be counted as residents of their hometowns for the purposes of drawing legislative districts is constitutional, a state judge ruled on Friday.

A group of Republican senators had challenged the law, arguing the state constitution required districts be drawn using federal Census data that lists prisoners as residents of the towns where they are incarcerated -- a method of counting criticized as "prison gerrymandering".

But Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine of Albany County rejected the plaintiffs' arguments in a decision released on Friday, finding that prison stays are generally temporary.

"Though inmates may be physically found in locations of their respective correctional facilities at the time the census is conducted, there is nothing in the record to indicate that such inmates have any actual permanency in these locations or have an intent to remain," Devine wrote.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who sponsored the law as a state senator last year, applauded the ruling.

"Today's decision by Judge Devine is a victory for fundamental fairness and equal representation," he said. "This decision affirms and applies a fair standard to the drawing of state legislative districts."

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Brennan Center for Justice, signed onto the case, arguing that the old method of counting, known as "prison gerrymandering," violated voting-rights laws by giving greater representation to residents of districts that include prisons.

"No one's voice should count less in the legislature because they don't live near a prison," Dale Ho of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said during oral arguments in October.

New York is one of four states to enact legislation redefining the counting of prisoners for redistricting purposes. Maryland and Delaware passed similar laws last year, and California Governor Jerry Brown signed a similar measure into law in his state in October.

David Lewis of Lewis and Fiore, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Dan Wiessner; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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