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New York's top court rejects new district lines

The New York State Capitol Building in Albany.
The New York State Capitol Building in Albany.

New York’s highest court has struck down the state’s new district lines for Congress and the state Senate, throwing the state’s June 28 primary into potential chaos.

The court upheld lower court rulings that determined that Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, deliberately gerrymandered the districts to favor candidates in their party.

The 4-to-3 ruling, which cannot be appealed, ordered that a court-appointed special master will now redraw the lines.

“The enactment of the congressional and Senate maps by the Legislature was procedurally unconstitutional, and the congressional map is also substantively unconstitutional as drawn with impermissible partisan purpose,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote in the majority opinion. “Prompt judicial intervention is both necessary and appropriate to guarantee the People’s right to a free and fair election."

The petitioning period for the June primary has already passed, and ballots for early voting were due to be printed in a matter of weeks, so the court said it’s likely that the primaries for congressional and state Senate races will have to be put off until later in the summer.

The new lines for the state Assembly districts were not challenged and will remain as they were drawn.

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Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s Law School, has been critical of the new maps and said the decision is not a surprise.

“By all accounts, the New York maps are a fairly aggressive gerrymander to favor Democrats,” Li said. “There was a lot of evidence about that.”

In the past decades, challenges to district lines -- which are reconfigured after the census every 10 years -- have failed. The difference this time is that in 2014, voters approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits the drawing of districts that would advantage an incumbent or disadvantage challengers, or would discourage competition.

The 2014 changes also set up a bipartisan, independent redistricting commission. Earlier this year, the commission deadlocked along party lines and released two opposing maps. The Legislature was not supposed to draw its own lines until the commission made a second attempt to produce another set of maps. The court found that the Senate and Assembly also violated the constitution by not following those rules.

“The Court of Appeals felt it was important to tell the Legislature, ‘No, this process is required under New York law. And that is what you are supposed to follow,'” Li said.

Republicans, who are in the minority party in state government and brought the lawsuit, argued that the new districts unfairly disadvantaged at least four of the state’s eight GOP congressional representatives.

Under the plan, Nicole Malliotakis, the only Republican representing New York City, would have seen the liberal neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn be added to her predominately conservative Staten Island district. Upstate, two GOP congressional representatives were drawn out of their districts altogether, and planned to move to try to retain their seats. On Long Island, a seat being vacated by Lee Zeldin, who is the Republican nominee for governor, was reconfigured to add more Democratic areas.

Malliotakis said in a statement that she is “heartened to see that the judicial system worked and that the will of the people is being preserved."

Democrats maintained that they drew the lines fairly, and that any changes made were to correct unfairly drawn lines during past decades when Republicans had more sway in redistricting decisions.

Republicans praised the court’s decision.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said in a statement that the decision “affirms our position that under One-Party Rule, Albany politicians engaged in obvious partisan gerrymandering, violating the State Constitution.”

Ortt also said, “Albany’s ruling class decided to put their political survival ahead of the will of the people.”

State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy was blunter.

“The Hochulmander has officially been defeated,” Langworthy said.

Some government reform groups were also pleased with the ruling.

Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of the League of Women Voters, which filed an amicus brief in the case, said the decision “represents a great victory for the people of New York, who approved a constitutional amendment that significantly altered both substantive standards governing redistricting.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the Senate disagrees with the decision.

"We disagree with the Court of Appeals decision and believe in the constitutionality of the congressional and state legislative maps passed earlier this year," said Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. “The state Senate maps in particular corrected an egregious partisan gerrymander and have not been overturned on the merits by any court. We will make our case to the special master appointed by the court."

The court’s decision has national implications for control of the House of Representatives after the 2022 elections. New York’s lines, which favored Democrats, could have counteracted efforts in Republican-dominated states, including Florida and Texas, to draw more districts that are favorable to the GOP.

Li said New York’s high court is also following a national trend of state courts that threw out gerrymandered lines.

“This ruling really fits in with a series of rulings around the country that have struck down both Democratic and Republican gerrymanders for violating states' constitutions,” Li said.

In North Carolina, Ohio and Kansas, maps drawn by Republican-dominated state legislatures were thrown out, and a court in Maryland struck down maps drawn by Democratic state lawmakers.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.