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Kearns takes NY to court over drivers license law

In his latest legal effort to block a state law granting drivers licenses to immigrants living here illegally, Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns will seek an injunction to prevent the state from enacting the Green Light law.

He said his legal staff's research shows he may be the first independently elected official to challenge this issue in court.

The federal lawsuit, which he filed Monday evening, follows steps he took last month to seek federal court clarification on whether county clerks can be legally compelled to offer the licenses, which Kearns said violates federal law.

"We’re taking action," said Kearns, a South Buffalo Democrat. "I'm willing to follow this all the way all the way to the Supreme Court."

Kearns said that until a federal judge offers clarification on the constitutionality of the state law, he wants the court to prevent the state from trying force unwilling clerks to issue the licenses. His will sue Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Mark Schroeder.

"I have been adamant since Day 1 that my objection to issuing driver’s licenses to those unlawfully present in the United States is strongly rooted in the law," he said.

He argues that the Green Light law puts county clerks in a no-win situation. Either clerks violate federal law by issuing the licenses, or clerks violate state law by refusing to issue them, which could potentially result in their removal from office by the governor.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has agreed to allow the County Attorney's Office to represent Kearns in his legal effort to gain federal court clarification. Poloncarz also said he thinks the courts will uphold the constitutionality of the state law. If that's the case, he said he expects all public officials to follow the law.

New York is far from the first state to legally allow driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants. A dozen other states already permit this.

But Kearns said he knows of no other official in any state that has taken similar action to challenge the law. In most states, county clerks are not involved in issuing licenses.

He said the county has a "very strong argument" that Gov. Cuomo’s Green Light legislation exposes county clerks who operate auto bureaus to federal criminal liability.

"I will not be intimidated by the governor to break federal law," he said.

Meanwhile, at the state Capitol, Erie County Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy, who is also the new state Republican Party chairman, credited Kearns with showing "incredible courage" by challenging the law signed by the Democratic governor and passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature.

“God bless him,’’ said the former Erie County GOP leader whose party endorsed Kearns, a Democrat, for county clerk in 2017.

Kearns is not the only Erie County official to take a stance on the issue. So have a number of Republican and Democratic Erie County legislators and Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who mailed letters to county clerks across New York State telling them to contact his office's Whistleblower Hotline if they want to anonymously report immigrants in the country illegally who apply for driver's licenses. He said he would turn over names to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Read Kearns' lawsuit here:

Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.

Erie County clerk: 'I will not be granting licenses to illegal immigrants'

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