At a time when Democrats control all of state government in New York, it’s hardly surprising to see a rush of progressive legislation, from imposing new regulations on landlords to decriminalizing the use of marijuana. Many of these efforts have been controversial, but none as much as the new law allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain drivers licenses.
It’s not only the “Green Light” law that is controversial, but the continuing opposition to it as well. That charge is being led by Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns, who has filed a federal lawsuit contending that it would be illegal for him and other clerks to obey this law.
Kearns doesn’t want to enforce this law and many New Yorkers are cheering him on. The question splits over a fundamental belief that those here illegally should have no official recognition and a conclusion that because they already are here and driving on our streets, we are all safer if they are licensed.
The law has created strange bedfellows: The state’s largest business group, The Business Council of New York State, endorsed it. Meanwhile, county clerks such as Kearns are speaking out against the law, which a June Sienna Poll shows is opposed by 53 percent of New Yorkers. When Kathleen Hochul was Erie County Clerk, she opposed the effort by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to allow those here illegally to get drivers licenses; now, as lieutenant governor, she supports the move.
But today, it’s the law and that fact needs to direct the way opponents deal with it. Kearns has adopted what appears to be a sensible approach that even supporters of the “Green Light” law should be able to endorse. He says he believes the law puts him and other county clerks in violation of federal law. That’s a no-win situation in which clerks could be sanctioned by the federal courts for obeying the law or removed from office by the governor for refusing to follow it.
That makes Kearns’ federal lawsuit an appropriate way to resolve the conflict. Because New York is unlike most other states, where only state agents process drivers license applications, a reaction from this state’s elected county clerks was in the cards.
That opposition is especially pronounced upstate, which is geographically large, but less populous and politically weaker. And among clerks upstate, none has been more outspoken than Kearns.
“We’re taking action,” the South Buffalo Democrat said. “I’m willing to follow this all the way all the way to the Supreme Court.”
It could end up there.
But mere opposition isn’t enough, not if the law means anything. Kearns’ objection is certainly politically astute, but by contending that the new state law puts clerks in violation of federal law, he has crafted an argument that merits evaluation by the courts. That’s how it’s supposed to work in this country.
The question is what will happen once the courts rule. If the law is found to be both legal and constitutional – as the gun control law known as the SAFE Act largely was – will Kearns then agree to obey the law? He has hinted that he hasn’t made up his mind about that. “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it,” he said last month.
We’ll say it for him: If he can’t obey a law that has survived the courts, his only honorable course would be to resign.