To redistrict or not to redistrict – that is the question (again)

Democrats and Republicans made their cases before the Court of Appeals on the fate of the current congressional lines.

New York Court of Appeals

New York Court of Appeals DEMERZEL21 / Getty Images

The latest chapter in New York’s redistricting saga is finally drawing to a close. On Wednesday, attorneys for Democrats and Republicans argued before the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, over the fate of the current congressional lines and whether the Independent Redistricting Commission should be allowed to redraw the state’s congressional districts before the 2024 election. Just last year, the Court of Appeals decision threw out redistricting maps approved by the state Legislature and gave the responsibility of drawing congressional lines to an outside expert. Now, a close decision is expected in the case that will decide whether the state’s congressional districts will get redrawn yet again. 

The congressional districts that members currently represent and ran for last year were the result of a Court of Appeals decision that found that the state Legislature violated the constitution when it rejected maps submitted by the Independent Redistricting Commission. A lower court initially appointed an outside expert to step in, a decision that the top court upheld in a controversial 4-3 ruling known as “Harkenrider v. Hochul.” The so-called special master did his work and the election cycle went by – but now Democrats argue that the 2022 decision was only a stopgap measure and the Independent Redistricting Commission should get another chance to redraw the district maps. In July, a mid-level appellate court decided in favor of Democrats, setting up a fight at the state’s highest court. 

In court on Wednesday, attorneys for Democrats and the Independent Redistricting Commission made the case to the state’s top court that the bipartisan body tasked with reapportionment under the state constitution has the right to draw new congressional district lines that will remain in place until the next census. “In 2014 your honors, voters enshrined into the constitution a process not only for drawing, but for remedying congressional district maps centered on the work of an independent redistricting commission to develop proposals for consideration by the Legislature,” said Andrea Trento, an attorney with the state Attorney General’s Office representing Gov. Kathy Hochul. “Petitioners here are entitled to relief because the current congressional map to the extent it is used in elections that go beyond – take place in 2024 and beyond fails to conform to that process enacted by the voters and therefore must be remedied.”

Republicans argued to the panel of judges that last year’s Court of Appeals decision in Harkenrider was not intended as a temporary stopgap measure but rather a permanent solution that would last for the rest of the decade. Since there are already congressional maps in effect, they said, the Independent Redistricting Commission has no authority to draw any new maps. “New Yorkers throughout the state understood that map was the end of the congressional redistricting cycle for this decade, consistent with the anti-gerrymandering amendment’s prohibition against mid-decade redistricting,” said Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for the Republican defendants. He further argued that Democrats took too long to bring their legal action and that Democrats in the state Legislature would use any opportunity to redraw the lines to engage in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

The court’s composition has shifted slightly since it decided the pivotal Harkenrider case. Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore is gone, with the court now under the leadership of Chief Judge Rowan Wilson. Another new addition to the court, Associate Judge Caitlin Halligan, unexpectedly recused herself from the case and was temporarily replaced on the bench by Presiding Justice Dianne Renwick, who leads a mid-level state appellate court. While Chief Judge Rowan Wilson is believed to be sympathetic to Democrats in the case, it remains unclear if he can get the four-person majority to rule in the party’s favor. “It could be a very close decision,” said Jeffrey Wice, a professor at New York Law School and an expert on redistricting. “It was apparent that the three judges who sided with Judge DiFiore last year in the Harkendrider case are not inclined to go with redrawing the congressional map again.” He said that even after Wednesday’s arguments, it’s hard to tell whether four judges will make up the solid majority Democrats need for the case.