Judge dismisses Kearns' Green Light lawsuit

Nov 8, 2019

A judge has dismissed Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns' lawsuit against New York's Green Light law.

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the dismissal Friday afternoon, saying the case was dismissed "because the law is legal." The decision by Judge Elizabeth Wolford to dismiss was based on the grounds it lacks subject matter jurisdiction.

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns expressed his displeasure over the court's dismissal of his Green Light lawsuit.
Credit Michael Mroziak / WBFO News

Kearns, in response to the dismissal Friday afternoon, suggested the judge merely "punted" the case.

"Any claims of victory by the Governor or the Attorney General are hollow," he said. "We still don't know whether the Green Light Law is constitutional. The judge did not tell me I have to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. All we know is that county clerks statewide have to wait to either be prosecuted or removed from office."

The law, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain New York driver's licenses, was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June. James says it "aims to make our roads safer and our economy stronger" and says she will continue to defend it.

The law goes into effect December 14. Kearns renewed his vow not to issue driver licenses to undocumented immigrants. He also anticipates there will be challenges from advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, and expects some may come to Buffalo to see that the law is enforced.

"They're not getting a driver's license in Erie County and that's what I've said. I'm saving the trip. Don't fly here. Don't drive here. That's when the conflict is going to come in," Kearns said. "That's when it's going to happen. And we're going to have to have a showdown. Unfortunately, I wanted a showdown on the constitutionality of the law. That's what I want. That's what the taxpayers wanted. But unfortunately, it's going to be something else."

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz released a lengthy written statement following Friday's court action, summarizing Judge Wolford's decision and then agreeing with the opinion that Kearns does not have the standing to challenge the law.

"Clerk Kearns, like every other elected official in our county, has sworn to uphold the laws of the United States and the State of New York," said Poloncarz in his prepared written statement. "We do not get to choose whether we will enforce a law, and only a court can declare a law unconstitutional. Until such time as a law is determined to be unconstitutional we must enforce all laws. Otherwise we cease to be representative democracy.

"The Erie County Clerk’s Office is purely ministerial in nature – it does not propose nor pass laws – and is simply the designated arm of New York State to issue driver’s licenses. Considering the well-reasoned decision, and the doubtful result that any appeal would be successful, I fully expect Clerk Kearns and his staff to do their ministerial job and enforce the laws that are passed by New York. To do so otherwise will put the county at risk for lawsuits and the unnecessary damages that could result therefrom."

Kearns, though, stated during his news conference, "If a County Clerk can't bring this lawsuit, then who the hell can?"

He also calls on US Attorney General William Barr to look into what he describes as Albany's efforts "to make New York State a sanctuary state."

Also issuing a written statement following the dismissal was the New York Immigration Coalition, whose executive director Steven Choi said the following: "How much of Erie County's hard-earned taxpayer dollars was wasted on Mickey Kearns' useless political stunt? As we've said all along, we're not surprised that a federal judge put Erie County Clerk's Mickey Kearns’ politically-motivated lawsuit stunt where it belongs - in the trash. The law making New York the 13th state to legally allow all immigrants, regardless of immigration status, to seek driver’s licenses is clearly constitutional, and these lawsuits are nothing but frivolous stunts designed to push an anti-immigrant agenda. With Judge Wolford ruling that Kearns lacked standing to even bring the case in the first place, maybe now he’ll be quiet, put his personal hatreds aside and do what he was elected to do—follow the law of the land when it goes into effect on Dec. 14 and begin issuing driver’s licenses to everyone deemed qualified."

Kearns also argues that the Green Light Law amounts to another unfunded state mandate which will impact the budget. He estimates that impact at approximately $700,000 to cover staffing, training and additional processing. He was then asked whether the revenue generated by additional applications might offset that potential budget hit.

"We don't know truly how many people are here illegally," he replied. "How many people are going to come into our offices to get a driver's license? We don't know any of that information. This has never been done before. So, we have to prepare for the worst and we don't know how many people are going to come."

Kearns plans to address the matter when meeting with the Erie County Legislature next Wednesday.