Surprise, I bet you thought you’d seen the last of redistricting

Democrats want to redraw the state’s congressional districts yet again, and a Court of Appeals led by future chief judge Rowan Wilson may give them the chance.

State Attorney General Letitia James and Gov. Kathy Hochul

State Attorney General Letitia James and Gov. Kathy Hochul Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of the Governor

If you thought that the fight over congressional district lines in New York had ended with last year’s midterm elections, think again. With support from Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Attorney General Letitia James, Democrats are now trying to get those lines redrawn again before the 2024 election cycle. And with a friendly new chief judge poised to get confirmed, they may just be successful in hitting the reset button on the whole debacle.

After a judge ordered a special master to redraw the congressional districts that the state would use for the next decade, Democrats recently revived a case dismissed by a judge last year that sought to compel the Independent Redistricting Commission – the body tasked with producing bipartisan maps – to submit a new set of congressional lines for the state Legislature. The judge tossed the case. But Democrats are now appealing that decision.

Hochul and James offered their support for the appeal in a recent amicus brief they filed with the court, which argued that the maps drawn by a court-appointed, out-of-state expert cannot stay in place until the next census and redistricting cycle. In the brief, they wrote that the work of the special master made sense at the time given the tight timeframe to draw new maps, but it is ultimately the constitutional responsibility of the Legislature to fix lines thrown out in court, and therefore the Independent Redistricting Commission must submit a new congressional map for lawmakers to consider. “We’re hoping that it goes back to the commission and that they draw the lines and that they have public hearings – and that is most important,” James told City & State. “And that they draw lines that are compact and that they again listen to the general public as they respond to the maps that they draw.”

Of course, the whole redistricting fight happened because the Independent Redistricting Commission wasn’t able to come to a consensus on drawing a map. The commission’s failure led the Democratic-led state Legislature to step in and draw their own maps. A high-profile GOP-backed lawsuit then succeeded in getting those maps thrown out and a special master appointed to draw new maps. Then came the lawsuit that tried to kick the maps back to the Independent Redistricting Commission at the heart of the renewed efforts.

“It was a sleeper case,” Jeff Wice, New York Law School professor and redistricting expert, told City & State. But he said a lot has changed since the oral arguments of that lawsuit that puts Democrats in a more favorable position now. “The notion that the IRC can’t function is no longer true,” Wice said, referencing the maps it produced in December for the Assembly. “It also has new members, it has a new chair, so it’s a different cast of characters.”

Reviving the case may seem moot given that the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, previously upheld lower court rulings finding that the Legislature-drawn maps were unconstitutional and should be replaced by maps drawn by a court-appointed special master. But the court has undergone significant change since that decision and will soon be under new leadership. On Monday, Hochul announced her nomination of Court of Appeals Associate Judge Rowan Wilson to serve as the next chief judge, a choice likely to boost Democrats’ efforts to draw new congressional lines. Wilson was one of only two judges who dissented from the majority decision to toss the districts drawn by the state Legislature last year. He argued both that the lower court had no right to appoint a special master and that lawmakers had not engaged in unconstitutional gerrymandering. A third judge dissented in part, agreeing that the maps should be tossed on procedural grounds but that a special master should not draw new ones. “Given that the congressional case is back to the Court of Appeals, there’s a stronger likelihood that the (Independent) Redistricting Commission and the Legislature might have a greater say in developing a congressional plan for the 2024 through 2030 elections,” Wice said.

Democrats in the Legislature and left-wing activists met Wilson’s nomination with praise and his confirmation is expected to happen quickly and smoothly. His likely replacement as an associate judge on the court is Caitlin Halligan, whom Hochul announced her intention to nominate barring any potential legal action from Republicans over a recent statutory change to the nominating process. Although her specific jurisprudence remains to be seen as she has never served as a judge, Wice expects that she’ll likely support a decision favorable to legislative Democrats. “The court is likely to go from a four-three conservative majority to a four-three liberal majority,” Wice said of the change that will occur under new leadership and with a new judge on the bench.

Under the current case, only congressional districts might get redrawn; lines for the Senate and the Assembly were not included as part of the lawsuit. But while Democrats have maintained control of their supermajorities in the state Legislature, congressional losses to Republicans in New York played a significant role in the party’s loss of the House. And the state is increasingly being viewed as a consequential battleground as both the GOP and Democrats have begun pouring money into keeping the seats they already hold and flipping others. The chance to put new lines in place before the next election – a presidential election year – would give Democrats one more shot at approving districts that may be more favorable to them compared to those drawn by the special master.

With reporting by Jeff Coltin

This story has been updated to reflect the opinion of a third Court of Appeals judge who partially dissented from the majority decision last year to leave the redrawing process to a court-appointed expert but agreed with the majority that the maps signed into law were unconstitutional.

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