Monserrate fights removal with suit

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State Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) did not waste time last week after being expelled from the Senate by his fellow lawmakers. Two days later he and his lawyers filed an appeal in Manhattan federal court, claiming the move violated his civil rights.

A Manhattan federal judge agreed to allow Monserrate’s office staff to keep their jobs as he fights the 53-8 decision to oust him, based on his misdemeanor conviction for assaulting his girlfriend in 2008 and his behavior after her injury.

But the judge declined to place a stay on Monserrate’s expulsion, noting the Senate is not currently in session. A hearing on the suit is scheduled for Thursday and the judge has promised to render a decision before Feb. 22, when the Senate is scheduled to reconvene.

Monserrate’s counsel, noted civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, said the Senate’s action undermined the democratic process.

“We should be on guard whenever any government body says their power is based on inherent or absolute power,” Siegel said at a news conference in Manhattan last Thursday. “You can’t close your eyes to the violation of civil rights that occurred Tuesday night.”

By voting 53-8 to eject Monserrate Feb. 9, the Senate deprived voters from his district of their rights to representation, Siegel argued.

Monserrate ran unopposed in the 2008 election after the Queens Democrats backed him over incumbent Sen. John Sabini, who bowed out of the race to accept a position on the state Racing and Wagering Board.

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose office will represent the Senate in the lawsuit, called Monserrate’s and Siegel’s assessment “absurd.”

“It is well-settled law that voters have no legal right to representation by any particular individual, nor does the temporary vacancy in Monserrate’s seat unlawfully impinge on his constituents’ rights,” Cuomo wrote in a legal memorandum responding to the suit. “Further, Monserrate’s claim that his expulsion was retaliatory is belied by the facts, as evidenced by the scrupulously detailed investigative report.”

Monserrate, the first elected official in New York state not to resign in the face of a looming expulsion vote from the state Legislature, said he would not run in a special election planned for March 15 by Gov. David Paterson because it is invalid. But he indicated he would seek re-election in the fall.

“If the voters in my district decide they want me to represent them or not, I will respect that decision,” he said

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six citizens in Monserrate’s district who voted for the senator in 2008. Some had volunteered for his campaign, but all contacted him and asked how they could help, he said.

One of them, Malikah Shabazz, 54, said she supports Monserrate because he has funded community initiatives in LeFrak City, where she helps run the tenants association.

“Rather than waste money trying to police each other in the Senate, they should be spending that money in our district,” she said. “He is not elected by the Senate. He is elected by the people.”

In the meantime, Monserrate’s Democratic challenger, state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), picked up the endorsements of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) and Monserrate’s former chief of staff, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who took over his Council seat in a special election in 2009.

“Whether it is championing equal pay, advocating for women’s reproductive rights or calling for the creation of a domestic violence task force, women in this community, and throughout New York state, can trust Jose Peralta to do what is right,” Ferreras said in a statement. “I proudly endorse Jose for the state Senate.”

Monserrate was terse last Thursday when asked about his former protege’s apparent defection.

“She’s made a political decision and that’s hers to make,” he said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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