Not to be one-upped by the devolving New York City redistricting process, a new chapter in the ongoing statewide redistricting saga just got published. A state Supreme Court judge has ruled that the dysfunctional Independent Redistricting Commission must get the band back together to submit new Assembly lines by April 2023 that will be in place for the 2024 cycle. In a way, the state is right back where it started.
The problems with this year’s redistricting process go back to the 2010 cycle, and the 2014 constitutional amendment that created what was meant to be a bipartisan commission to take the politics out of redistricting. But as good government advocates have pointed out for years, the commission – evenly split between Democrats and Republicans – was doomed to fail, and lawmakers had written the amendment poorly.
When a judge tossed state Senate lines in April, it was done not because of gerrymandering, but because the state Legislature did not have the authority to draw and approve new maps when the redistricting commission failed to reach a consensus. Although the Assembly lines stayed in place initially because the original lawsuit didn’t include them, a new suit, brought by three political activists, soon rectified that. An appeals court judge ruled that the Assembly maps would be tossed too, on the same grounds, and kicked it back down to a lower court judge to decide the process for getting them redrawn. In the meantime, the newly drawn, temporary Assembly district lines would be used for the 2022 cycle. And the new ruling doesn’t strike down the districts for the next two years, or change this year’s elections.
That left a big question though: Who would come up with a new Assembly map? A court-appointed special master drew the congressional and state Senate maps. Would such an expert draw one for the Assembly too? Or would the ill-fated Independent Redistricting Commission return to once again take a swing at its constitutional duties?
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Laurence Love answered the question on Thursday, ruling that the process should return to the commission and that it will draw a new Assembly map for the state Legislature to vote on. Commission Chair David Imamura, a Democrat, welcomed the news. “I have every hope that we will, that all 10 of us will reach an agreement, and we’ll be able to put out a single set of lines,” Imamura told City & State. Under the ruling, the commission would have until the beginning of December to draw a new draft map for the Assembly and begin holding public hearings on the proposal. They would submit new lines to the legislature in April 2023. If the maps aren’t approved, the commission would be able to send a second draft by June. And if the legislature disapproves of the maps again, then the legislature (read: the Democratic majority) would be able to draw its own Assembly district maps. Imamura said that the time constraints that really caused tensions the first time around pose less of a problem this time, and added that he’s keeping his “fingers crossed” the commission will have the opportunity to try again.
Of course, this is contingent on the lower court ruling staying in place. The three men who brought the lawsuit seeking court intervention to create a new Assembly map – Paul Nichols, Gavin Wax and Gary Greenberg – will likely ask for an immediate stay on the ruling before appealing it. “A disgusting and disgraceful decision from a very political judge who worked in the Assembly for many years,” Greenberg said in a statement to City & State regarding Love, who worked for former Assembly Member Audrey Pheffer for more than two decades. “I am vehemently against this decision questioning its legality.” That means the decision to hand the process back to the commission may yet get overturned. Wax’s attorney, Aaron Foldenauer, confirmed the plaintiffs “are reviewing our options on appeal.”
But election attorney Sarah Steiner suggested that there’s a good chance the decision will hold up. “While I don’t doubt there are people who will appeal anything, this is a very defensible decision,” Steiner wrote in a tweet. “I’m going to stay optimistic about this for as long as I can.”
Correction: Aaron Foldenauer is Gavin Wax’s attorney. An earlier version misstated his client.