New York’s highest court said Wednesday that congressional and state Senate maps drawn by Democrats were unconstitutional, ruling that the maps violated procedural and substantive rules against gerrymandering.
The court said a court-appointed expert — called a special master — would now draw the maps instead of the legislature, and that the process would likely mean that the congressional and state senate primary elections would be pushed back to August. (The ruling did not address state assembly or gubernatorial elections, but did note, “New York routinely held a bifurcated primary until recently.”)
Like several other states, this was the first redistricting process in New York following the passage of anti-gerrymandering amendments to the state constitution. And in a 4-3 ruling, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, said Democrats violated those amendments in an attempt to gain a partisan advantage.
When the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission reached a deadlock on a redistricting proposal, the matter went to the Democratic-majority legislature, and “the legislature responded by creating and enacting maps in a nontransparent manner controlled exclusively by the dominant political party — doing exactly what they would have done had the 2014 constitutional reforms never been passed,” read the court’s majority opinion.
The decision was authored by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a 2015 nominee of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). The rejected congressional map would have eliminated one Republican-leaning district and redrawn three others into likely Democratic districts — a swing that helped contribute to cautious optimism from some Democrats about this year’s redistricting cycle and the balance of power in Washington, D.C.
Unlike other states where the judicial branch does not have the power to resolve redistricting disputes itself — such as Ohio, where Republicans are using delay tactics to ignore state courts, forcing the state to adopt gerrymandered districts — the New York court said that a special master selected by a lower court would draw acceptable maps in light of the legislature’s failure.
That was needed, the court said, in part because Democrats’ congressional districts were drawn to benefit them politically, as lower courts have found as well.
“There is record support in the undisputed facts and evidence presented by petitioners for the affirmed finding that the 2022 congressional map was drawn to discourage competition,” DiFiore wrote.
The court’s majority also found that the state’s Democratic respondents sought to short-circuit the redistricting process by allowing the legislature to seize upon inaction by the redistricting commission and take over the process.
“This we will not do,” DiFiore wrote. “Indeed, such an approach would encourage partisans involved in the IRC process to avoid consensus, thereby permitting the legislature to step in and create new maps merely by engineering a stalemate at any stage of the IRC process, or even by failing to appoint members or withholding funding from the IRC.”
The court also rejected the state respondents’ efforts to hold the 2022 congressional and state elections on the unconstitutional maps. The state argued that it was too late to change the districts.
“We reject this invitation to subject the People of this state to an election conducted pursuant to an unconstitutional reapportionment,” DiFiore wrote. Instead, a court-appointed special master will draw the maps, and the courts will work with election officials in order to schedule the primaries.
The court’s ruling adds to several other judicial interventions against gerrymandering, including a Maryland decision against a Democratic map as well as decisions against Republicans in North Carolina, Ohio and Alabama — though, due to Republicans’ delay tactics and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, respectively, voters in the latter two states will still vote in gerrymandered districts this year.