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Lack of special election leads ACLU to sue Taft



Published: Tue, August 6, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A special election would be too expensive and too confusing for voters, the governor said.

By JEFF ORTEGA

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

COLUMBUS -- Gov. Bob Taft has no plans to call a special election in former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s congressional district, despite the filing of a lawsuit asking a federal court to order the governor to do so.

"We still think we did the right thing," Taft spokesman Joe Andrews said. "It was cost-prohibitive for the communities."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit Monday asking a federal court to order Taft to call for a special election in the Mahoning County Democrat's former district for the remainder of his two year-term.

The ACLU suit names Taft as defendant and says the governor's failure to call for an election violates the state and federal constitutions and state law.

ACLU's stance

The ACLU also says Taft's decision effectively denies congressional representation to the constituents of the ousted Traficant's former district.

"Civil-rights workers died for that right," Scott T. Greenwood, the ACLU's general counsel, said before filing the suit in U.S. District Court in Columbus. "The government can't just take it away."

The U.S. House voted last month to expel Traficant for ethics violations related to Traficant's federal criminal convictions on bribery and related charges. A federal judge in Ohio has sentenced the nine-term former congressman to eight years in a federal prison for his convictions.

Taft, a Republican, decided not to call for a special election in the old congressional district, which takes in Mahoning, Columbiana and portions of Trumbull counties.

The governor cited the potential $800,000 cost to hold both a special primary and special general election.

Governor's reasoning

Taft, who had considered calling for a special election on the same day as the Nov. 5 general election, also cited the potential confusion for voters voting under the old congressional lines and also deciding contests in the new congressional districts. Taft also said anyone chosen might only serve a few weeks.

Portions of Traficant's old 17th District have been combined with other districts as part of congressional redistricting earlier this year. Ohio had to lose one seat because of changes in the population in the 2000 census.

The ACLU says both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions and state law require the governor to call a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat.

"It's not a matter of option. It's not a matter of cost," Raymond Vasvari, the ACLU's legal director, said in an interview.

"If this decision stands, the people of the 17th District will remain unrepresented in the [U.S.] House for the next five months, until the general election is held in November and the new representative is seated in January," the ACLU said in court papers. "The governor's unconstitutional action denies more than a half-million people their sovereign right of franchise and their voice in representative government."

Andrews, Taft's spokesman, said the ACLU has a right to pursue their lawsuit, but that the governor has no plans at this point to reconsider.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr.




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