Monday, October 2, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New York appeals court asked to revive challenge to congressional district map

Democratic electors argue the state's redistricting commission must draw a second map after the first one was rejected as unfairly favoring Democrats.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Attorneys for a group of New Yorkers seeking to reconvene the state's Independent Restricting Commission to redraw congressional maps argued before the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division on Thursday that the commission has a constitutional duty to finish the job.

“The IRC has a constitutional obligation to finish drawing New York's congressional map,” the challengers' attorney Aria C. Branch, of the Elias Law Group, told the judges. “The court in Harkenrider drew a map under emergency circumstances for the 2022 elections only. That emergency is now over.”

At issue are the current congressional maps, which is the job of the IRC. A pair of legal challenges, Harkenrider v. Hochul and Nichols v. Hochul, challenged the maps presented in 2022, claiming they unfairly favored Democrats. The New York Court of Appeals agreed, and the courts drew up an emergency map to hold the 2022 elections.

The Democratic electors who brought the case claim the state’s constitution required the IRC to submit a second map to be used until the next census. State officials claim the map the court submitted should stand for the next decade.

“There is nothing in this Article 78 mandamus special proceeding that reaches the merits of the existing congressional maps, either with respect to process how they came to be, nor with respect to the substance,” said attorney Timothy Hill, who represented four members of the IRC in the 50-minute hearing Thursday.

Justice Stan L. Pritzker and Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry questioned attorneys on both sides on whether the court-drawn map was specifically for the 2022 elections and the timing of the filing of the mandamus challenge.

“There's a specific provision under the New York Constitution under the redistricting amendment, Section 4E, that says that the map has to be in place unless modified by a court and that is the provision that we are here under today,” Branch said.

Attorney Misha Tseytlin, representing the electors, took issue with the term modification, arguing his clients are seeking much more than that.

“It might be good English to say that the French Revolution modified the status of the nobility, but that's only because there is a third kind of speech known as understatement and a literally literary device known as sarcasm,” said Tseytlin, of Troutman Pepper. “I don't think I can say it better than, to explain why the word modified doesn't mean a wholesale change.”

Justice Eddie J. McShan asked Hill if his IRC clients’ failure to provide a congressional map is a constitutional violation.

“The constitution provides a remedy for that, which was exercised,” Hill, of Perillo Hill, responded.

Attorney Jessica Ring Edmundson, who represented three IRC members in favor of presenting a second map, supplemented Branch's arguments. She was met by Pritzker questioning why the IRC should get another shot at finishing a job it had abandoned.

“At the time, there was a set of commissioners who refused to meet to actually be able to vote out the map and there was legislation in place at the time that provided what would happen in that instance,” said Rung Edmundson, of Jenner & Block. “So, what the violation of law that the Harkenrider court remedied was the fact that there was no map in place for the 2022 election. The rights of the people to actually have the IRC process play out the way that they intended has not yet been remedied.”

Justices Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald and John C. Egan Jr. rounded out the five-Justice panel, which took the case under advisement.

The stakes are high after several upsets in New York congressional races last year flipped control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republican party by a slim margin. New congressional boundaries could improve the Democrats’ changes to regain control in the next election cycle.

The battle over gerrymandering in New York has been fought for decades, but the latest court fight began after 14 Republican state electors filed a complaint in February 2022 alleging Democrats “unconstitutionally malapportioned” districts following the 2020 census and violated a 2014 law prohibiting partisan or incumbent-protected gerrymandering.

In the 67-page complaint which came to be known as Harkenrider, the electors alleged that none of the proposed congressional districts match the 776,000-resident population goal, citing “bizarre, roving boundaries” in certain districts and “dramatically different” maps in other districts.

New York in 2010 had a population goal of about 720,000 residents for each of its 27 congressional districts. Republicans claimed, however, that 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 every ten years starting in 2020.

The New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled in a 4-3 decision that the new maps were gerrymandered. The ruling delayed the state’s primary elections from June to August.

The boundaries were drawn by a court and were set to remain in place for the next decade.

The Democratic electors then challenged the court-drawn boundaries in June 2022, claiming the IRC neglected its constitutional duty by not redrawing a second map following the Court of Appeals decision. The Supreme Court of New York for Albany County rejected the claim, finding that there was no enforceable remedy available to the electors, prompting the appeal to the Appellate Division.

Follow @@joeharris_stl
Categories / Appeals, Government, Politics, Regional

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.