New Yorkers should soon find out if a new congressional map will be in place for the 2024 elections or if the map drawn up last year will be used through the 2030 cycle. On Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals heard arguments in “Hoffmann v. Independent Redistricting Commission,” a case brought by voters who wanted to see the state redistricting commission and Legislature complete their work and draw a constitutionally mandated congressional map.
This case is important, not only for New Yorkers who want to know whether there will be a new map, but for state parties across the nation. With a five-seat majority in Congress, national Republicans want to go into the 2024 election cycle with the strongest districts as possible in place. As courts consider rejecting Republican-drawn congressional maps in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana, among other states, each district counts more than ever. Republicans see a threat to their majority if districts are redrawn that eliminate GOP strongholds. In North Carolina, Republicans recently passed a new congressional map that could eliminate three Democratic seats.
In 2014, New York voters approved a constitutional amendment that created a so-called Independent Redistricting Commission tasked with sending up to two rounds of congressional and state legislative maps to the Legislature for approval. The commission is made up of 10 members: eight appointed by partisan legislative leaders and the remaining two by the commissioners themselves. In 2022, the Commission failed to agree on a congressional map. The state Legislature tried to pick up where the Commission left off, but the courts rejected its map both as a partisan gerrymander and as one improperly enacted because the Commission failed to send a second map to the Legislature (as the state constitution originally intended it to do) before the legislative leaders took it upon themselves to act..
As a result, with a tight timeframe to enact a new map for the 2022 elections, a state supreme court judge in Bath appointed a Special Master to draw a new map, which was used in last year’s election.
Democrats have argued that the Special Master’s map was limited for use only in the 2022 election. The Republicans want that map kept in place through the 2030 elections when the next census is taken. The Democratic lawyers believe the state’s constitution requires that only the state Legislature can draw a final map, not the courts. They have argued the process that imploded last year should simply pick up where it left off, letting the Independent Redistricting Commission and the Legislature complete their required work. Yet Republicans have pointed to another section of the state constitution that prevents additional redistricting mid-decade. They have also argued that Democrats’ challenge to the current map drawn by the Special Master was filed too late.
This week, the Court of Appeals – the state’s highest court – heard arguments from both sides. Originally, a state supreme court judge in Albany rejected the Democrats’ case, dismissing it outright, believing that the Commission and Legislature lost their opportunity to draw the map. The Appellate Division in Albany disagreed, reversed the lower court judge and directed the Commission to get back to work on a new map. The Republicans successfully got an order from the court putting the Appellate Division’s decision on hold pending the outcome of the Court of Appeals decision. However, that order did not prevent Commission members from going about its regular work, which prodded the Democratic commissioners to ask the public for input on what a new map should look like.
Thursday’s spirited, nearly two-hour court hearing may lead to a very closely divided court decision. Chief Judge Rowan Wilson and Associate Justices Jenny Rivera and Shirley Troutman all dissented in last year’s ruling, and stated that redistricting is, in the end, a state legislative responsibility. Judges Wilson and Rivera appeared sympathetic to the Democratic arguments. Judges Anthony Cannataro, Michael Garcia and Madeline Singas peppered the Democratic lawyers with concerns over replacing the 2022 map as unnecessary and motivated more by process concerns over substantive issues.
After new Associate Judge Caitlin Halligan recused herself from this case, Manhattan Appellate Court Judge Dianne Renwick took her place and may end up as the swing vote. It’s important to note that Renwick was part of an appellate panel that supported having the Independent Redistricting Commission and Legislature redraw the Assembly map last year.
We’re likely to get a decision by December, leaving enough time for the Commission and Legislature to enact a new map in time for the start of the 2024 campaign in late February when petitioning gets underway for the June primary. That’s if the Court of Appeals agrees with the Democrats. Should the Republican arguments carry the day, the protracted post-2020 redistricting process should finally end and leave the court ordered 2022 map in place through the end of the decade.
But in today’s supercharged political climate, we’re left to expect the unexpected.
Jeffrey Wice is an Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow at New York Law School, where he directs the N.Y. Census & Redistricting Institute.