New York’s redistricting saga is far from over. On Tuesday, the state Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that the New York Independent Redistricting Commission will need to draw a new electoral map by Feb. 28 next year. The ruling means that elected officials will need to wait months to learn exactly where they will be running in next year’s elections. It also means that for the next nine years, New York will have a map that is broadly more favorable to Democrats than the map that was made in place for the 2022 midterm elections – assuming that yet another legal challenge doesn’t invalidate it.
In November, New York’s top court heard arguments from Democrats that because a court stepped in and modified the state’s maps, they only counted for that election cycle and the Independent Redistricting Commission should get a new chance to create maps. Conversely, Republicans argued that too much time had passed for Democrats to create a new map.
“The plain text of the 2014 amendments to the Constitution places express limitations on court-drawn maps,” Chief Justice Rowan Wilson wrote in the majority opinion. “Following the enactment of the 2014 amendments, New York courts no longer have the blanket authority to create decade-long redistricting plans. Instead, the Constitution now limits court-drawn redistricting to the minimum required to remedy a violation of law.”
Judges Jenny Rivera, Shirley Troutman and Dianne Renwick concurred, while Judges Anthony Cannataro, Michael Garcia and Madeline Singas dissented. Judge Caitlin Halligan recused herself from the case. (She was temporarily replaced on the court by Renwick, the presiding justice of a mid-level appellate court.)
What happens next
As a result of Tuesday’s decision, the Independent Redistricting Commission will have to propose new congressional maps by the end of February. The commission should be able to move quickly, since the court found that the commission is not required to hold any additional public hearings before drawing new maps, since it already sought public input in 2022. Once the state Legislature approves the new maps, they will go into effect in time for the 2024 election and will last through the next round of redistricting in 2032.
There’s no telling what will happen if the redistricting commission cannot agree on a set of new maps. When that happened last year, the state Legislature took the initiative to draw new maps – only to have the Court of Appeals rule those maps unconstitutional in a controversial decision.
For now, at least, the Independent Redistricting Commission is confident that it will be able to come to a consensus on new maps this time around. “We are pleased with the Court of Appeals’ decision and look forward to getting back to work with our colleagues as soon as possible to ensure that New York’s voters receive the benefit of the historic redistricting reforms they voted for in 2014,” state Independent Redistricting Commission Chair Ken Jenkins said in a statement.
The commission will have to finish its work quickly, because candidates need to know where they’re going to run. Westchester County Executive George Latimer is challenging Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the 16th Congressional District’s Democratic Primary – one of the nation’s highest-profile Democratic primaries – and the exact boundaries of the district could mean the difference between success and failure for Bowman. Latimer previously told City & State that he expected he would lose the race if the district was extended to include more of the Bronx.
“I believe that this gives us an opportunity to finally see fair maps in New York state and that's all the Democrats are looking for, and I'm confident that through the process, now that the court has decided, that is exactly what we'll end up with,” New York State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs said following the court’s decision.
New York Republicans were less concerned with the ramifications of the decision than they were with the fairness and legality of Democrats drawing new maps.
“The Court’s decision today is plainly wrong on the Constitution and the law. In their relentless pursuit of power at all costs, corrupt Democrats in Albany and Washington have politicized the Court of Appeals,” New York State Republican Committee Chairman Ed Cox and Rep. Elise Stefanik said in a joint statement. “Its once esteemed reputation is in tatters.”
“New York Republicans will not give up the fight against gerrymandering and for free and fair elections. The people of New York deserve better than this,” they added.
A brief history of redistricting
The legal fight over redistricting began last year, after New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission failed to come to a consensus on the state’s new district maps for congressional and state elections ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The 10-person body made up of 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans kicked the decision to the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. The Legislature produced a map that favored Republicans in just four of New York’s 26 congressional districts and left them favored to retain their supermajority in the state Senate and their majority in the state Assembly.
Republican officials and voters immediately called foul and a lawsuit was filed in Steuben County. After the case, known as Harkenrider v. Hochul, worked its way through the legal system, the Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that the state Democrats gerrymandered districts and a special master, Jonathan Cervas, was brought in to create new ones.
At the time, the court was more conservative, controlled by a conservative bloc led by then-Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. DiFiore wrote the majority decision in the Harkenrider case, which was joined by Cannataro, Garcia and Singas – the same judges who dissented from Tuesday’s decision.
The result was divisive and swung the pendulum the other way, giving Democrats less of an advantage while the GOP found more congressional districts favorable to them. Democratic candidates rushed to make an Aug. 23 primary election and make sense of the new lines, resulting in infighting among Democrats, crowded races and ultimately, Republicans flipping four seats in New York. The effect of those losses was felt nationally.
Following the 2022 election, the Court of Appeals shifted to the left, with the retirement of DiFiore (who was replaced as chief judge by Wilson) and the addition of Halligan. Democrats, reasoning that maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission couldn’t possibly be as bad as those drawn by the court-appointed expert, began to argue that the state constitution required that the Independent Redistricting Commission be given another chance to draw the maps that would last for the rest of the decade.
Albany Law School Professor Vin Bonventre told City & State that he agreed with the court’s findings about the limitation of the judiciary in the creation of voting maps. He said he believed the court’s previous Harkenrider decision had been flawed and noted that Democrats got exactly what they wanted from a Wilson-led court. “They got Rowan Wilson and of course they were hoping that with the new Chief Judge, they would get a better result with regard to the redistricting,” Bonventre said. “And that is exactly what they got.”
He said that Democrats shouldn’t have issues with the next redistricting map if they’re responsible, noting that the state Legislature can legally modify any map that the Independent Redistricting Commission delivers by up to 2%. So long as they don’t modify it any more extensively than that, he said, Republicans may sue, “but that's probably not going to go anywhere.”
Any new district maps produced by the Independent Redistricting Commission are likely to improve Democrats’ chances in the 2024 midterm elections.
The new maps could present a particular threat to the only Republican representing New York City in Congress, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. Her current 11th Congressional District includes all of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn. If the district is extended into more liberal precincts of Brooklyn – as the state Legislature tried to do in a proposed map that was struck down as unconstitutional – it could become a tempting pick-up opportunity for Democrats.
The last Democrat to represent those areas in Congress was former Rep. Max Rose, who was ousted by Malliotakis in 2020. The New York Post reported last month that Democratic City Council Member Justin Brannan, who was just reelected to the council in southern Brooklyn, is considering challenging Malliotakis. “People are urging me to run,” Brannan told City & State on Tuesday. “Right now, I’m focused on the November plan and the (city) budget. I’m focused on doing my job as a council member who just got reelected into a new district that I’m excited to represent and as finance chair in the council. But yeah, I mean, a lot of people are calling me and saying I should run.”
Brannan rejected the notion that the decision will result in maps that are gerrymandered in favor of Democrats. “I think if the lines are drawn fair and competitive, Democrats have a better message that resonates with voters,” said Brannan, whose new council district was somewhat awkwardly drawn during the city’s own redistricting process last year, in part to accommodate a new majority-Asian district in Brooklyn. “It’s not about drawing lines that are going to help one party or the other, it’s about drawing lines that are fair.”
- with Annie McDonough
This article has been updated with comments from Vin Bonventre and Justin Brannan.