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Gerrymandering decision against NY Democrats unlikely at top court

Attorneys for the traditionally blue state insist that lawmakers get their authority from the New York Constitution to apportion voting districts.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York’s high court seemed primed Tuesday to sign off on congressional redistricting efforts that favor the Democratic Party as the state barrels into 2022 midterm elections.

The hearing in Albany was quickly scheduled after a lower court ruled last week that state Democrats had unconstitutionally redrawn congressional district boundaries earlier this year to eliminate four districts previously held by Republicans and add three seats to the Democratic block.

That April 21 ruling flatly determined that the intent and result of the new districts was to “discourage competition and favor Democrats," but the 3-2 court also ruled that lawmakers had the authority to draw the new district maps. It gave the state Legislature until April 30 to redraw its congressional map. Republicans currently hold eight of New York's 27 seats in Congress, though the proposed 26-seat congressional map is set to cost them four.

As the state and its Democratic leaders fight for a reversal, they focused on the steep burden of proof Republicans must meet to demonstrate that the new congressional maps were designed expressly to punish Republicans. The argument seemed to be a winning one.

Judge Jenny Rivera noted the state Legislature seems to have followed the letter of the law in New York by evaluating two of the maps put forward by the Independent Redistricting Commission, and that the Legislature had the power to reject them and go another way. “The Legislature had two plans before it and it didn’t adopt either,” Rivera said. “The constitution is very clear that the IRC plans are not mandated to be approved; that is for the legislature to accept or reject.”

Craig Bucki, who represents New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, called it a “pretty far leap” to suggest the legislature was derelict in its constitutional responsibility.

“We would submit the sufficiency simply is not there to overturn the reasoned judgment of the Legislature,” the attorney argued.

Eric Hecker, who represents New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said that GOP electors have not proved that intent beyond a reasonable doubt, putting all their eggs in the single basket of a contrary computer simulation suggesting gerrymandering. “This would be the first court in any of these cases to strike down a redistricting plan without a district-by-district analysis of what the supposed problem is,” Hecker said.

The state's arguments did not land as directly with the full court. Judge Michael Garcia hinted that the court’s forthcoming ruling could be itself party-line, questioning why the state Legislature did not accept and then propose amendments to the IRC-drawn maps.

“The Legislature could have done that,” Garcia said. “They did something very, very different, and isn’t that evidence of a purpose to gerrymander?”

Attorney Misha Tseytlin of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders, who represents the GOP electors, argued there is evidence New York legislators did not abide by the constitution in rejecting the IRC’s proposed district maps. “The constitution specifically says that the second set of maps shall be voted on by the legislature,” he said. “It simply didn’t happen here. They didn’t vote on that second set of maps.”

Democratic governors have nominated all seven judges on the Court of Appeals: six by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Judge Shirley Troutman by Governor Kathy Hochul. All but Garcia are themselves Democrats.

The battle over gerrymandering in New York has been fought for decades, but the latest court fight began after 14 Republican state electors sued in February, alleging Democrats “unconstitutionally malapportioned” districts following the 2020 census and violated a 2014 law prohibiting partisan or incumbent-protected gerrymandering.

In the 67-page petition, the electors alleged none of the proposed congressional districts match the 776,000-resident population goal, citing “bizarre, roving boundaries” in certain districts and creating “dramatically different” maps in other districts.

The lower appellate court credited computer simulations by election analyst Sean Trende, an expert for the Republican electors, who found that Republican voters were packed into only a few districts and spread out Democratic voters “as efficiently as possible.” Trende noted in his analysis that it was “implausible, if not impossible,” that the 2022 maps were drawn without partisan intent.

Screenshot of tweet showing a demonstration on the steps of New York City Hall advocating for a redistricting process that keeps Asian American communities whole. (Twitter via Courthouse News)

According to the 3-2 majority opinion, while the 2022 congressional map created more GOP-leaning districts than in Trende’s simulations, the next nine most competitive districts would lean Democratic.

In a dissent, two of the appellate division’s judges wrote that Trende’s simulations insufficiently showed partisan intent and took issue with his analyses. They also disputed that “the mere fact that the 2022 congressional map was drawn by elected Democrats warrants the extreme relief of judicial intervention requested here.”

New York in 2010 had a population goal of about 720,000 residents for each of its 27 congressional districts, but Republicans say population shifts over time led to those districts being malapportioned. Four years later, the state amended its constitution to prohibit partisan or incumbent-protected gerrymandering, and it formed an independent commission to redraw congressional districts.

In 2021, however, Democrats tried to allow the state Legislature to assume the vast redistricting authority in cases after the commission failed to vote on redistricting plans. Democrats have said they redrew district lines to protect racial- or language-minority voting rights.

Gerrymandering battles across the country have been fiercely fought. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis approved a new congressional map that created four new GOP-leaning seats. Democrats have secured court wins in other states where GOP gerrymandering was found to have occurred, such as in Kansas and Ohio, while Republicans have thwarted Democratic attempts at gerrymandering in Maryland.

Hecker argued the situation in process in New York was “a far, far cry from what happened in Florida, where you had outside political operatives hired to engage in sham proceedings and to destroy material evidence.”

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