On Thursday, a mid-level state appellate court sided with Democrats in their effort to overturn court-drawn congressional maps, the latest development in a legal battle that is likely to come to a head at New York’s highest court in the coming months.
In a 3-2 decision, the 3rd Judicial Department Appellate Division panel ordered the state’s redistricting commission to prepare new maps ahead of elections in 2024, reversing a lower court's decision. Almost immediately, Republican-backed intervenors in the case released a statement indicating they would appeal the decision to New York’s highest court.
“On to the Court of Appeals,” wrote former GOP Rep. John Faso, who is helping coordinate Republicans’ redistricting efforts. “We remain confident the Court of Appeals will uphold the decision in Harkenrider v. Hochul - that the fair lines established by the District Court will be maintained and will preserve the New York Constitution's prohibition against mid-decade redistricting.”
The current Republican-friendly congressional district lines were drawn by a court-appointed expert in 2022, after the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission failed to agree on new lines and the Court of Appeals rejected the Democrat-controlled state Legislature’s attempts to draw its own maps.
Last year, a group of plaintiffs backed by Democrats filed a new lawsuit, seeking to get the court-drawn maps replaced by new maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission. Their complaint was flatly rejected by Albany Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch. “The question is whether the IRC has the authority now to submit a second redistricting plan corresponding to the 2020 federal census. I think not!,” Judge Lynch wrote in his decision.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued in part that the state’s highest court meant to enact the existing lines only for the 2022 cycle, not for the rest of the decade. They asked the courts to restart the Independent Redistricting Commission’s normal process of drafting maps and forwarding them to the legislature to remain in place until after the next census.
“We are now in the uncomfortable position of discerning what the Court of Appeals intended by its silence regarding the critical issue of the duration relative to the judicial remedy it imposed,” Presiding Justice Elizabeth Garry wrote in her decision for the majority. “We are necessarily limited in our ability to infer such intention in this delicate and highly charged matter of significant public concern.”
Garry added that the constitutional language around redistricting, which was added as part of amendments approved by voters in 2014, implies that the “will of the people” should guide the process for drawing new lines.
“We too must be guided by the overarching policy of the constitutional provision: broad engagement in a transparent redistricting process,” Garry wrote.
Garry’s opinion was joined by Justices Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald and Eddie McShan.
Justice Stan Pritzker dissented from the ruling, in an opinion joined by Justice Egan. Pritzker wrote that he believes the lawsuit was untimely and that if the Court of Appeals had really meant for the current maps to only be interim, they would have explicitly specified that detail.
“If it were an interim order, presumably there would be a directive that the IRC reconvene and the constitutionally mandated redistricting,” he wrote.
Garry was included in a short list of potential nominees presented to Gov. Kathy Hochul to become the Court of Appeals Chief Judge earlier this year. Hochul instead nominated Rowan Wilson, then an associate judge on the high court, who was approved by the state Senate.
Wilson wrote the dissent in the Harkenrider case, which tossed out the congressional districts drawn by the state legislature after the Independent Redistricting Commission failed to present a consensus set of maps to lawmakers. The vacancy was created by the resignation of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who wrote the majority opinion in Harkenrider, which was decided 4-3.
With the ascent of Wilson, and the appointment of Associate Judge Caitlin Halligan to fill his role, the court’s makeup may be changed in such a way to overturn Harkenrider less than two years after it was decided provided none of the other justices change their positions.
Rep. Suzan Delbene, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, applauded the appellate panel's decision.
“After last year’s Republican power grab resulted in an out-of-state special master drawing a map that was rubber stamped by a partisan judge, today’s decision by the New York Court is a reaffirmation that the will of the voters should be respected when it comes to drawing fair maps,” she said in a statement. “We are eager for the Independent Redistricting Commission to resume their constitutional duty of creating new congressional maps so that New Yorkers can have the fair representation they deserve.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of judges who voted in Harkenrider v. Hochul. This article has also been updated with a statement from the DCCC.