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Top NY court upholds judgment that says Democrats gerrymandered

With midterm elections around the corner, the Court of Appeals voided New York's congressional district maps and delayed the state's primaries by two months.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — New York lawmakers hoping to ward off a Republican takeover of the House in the fall incurred a major and surprise blow on Wednesday with the state's Court of Appeals ruling that Democrats drafted new congressional districts with partisan intent.

Releasing its 4-3 opinion just one day after arguments, the Court of Appeals has effectively delayed the state's primary elections from June to August. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote that the trial court, which inherits the dispute now with no option for further appeal, “shall adopt constitutional maps with all due haste.”

“We are cognizant of the logistical difficulties involved in preparing for and executing an election,” DiFiore wrote earlier in the majority opinion. “Like the courts below, however, we are not convinced that we have no choice but to allow the 2022 primary election to proceed on unconstitutionally enacted and gerrymandered maps.”

DiFiore also noted that “judicial oversight is required to facilitate the expeditious creation of constitutionally conforming maps” in time for the 2022 midterms.

The opinion comes a day after the high court heard arguments on whether the state Legislature exceeded its powers when it redrew new congressional maps after an independent commission stalled. That hearing was quickly scheduled after a lower court of appeals ruled last week that state Democrats unconstitutionally attempted to redraw the districts to favor their candidates and to push the GOP out of potentially several seats.

“There is record support in the undisputed facts and evidence presented by petitioners for the affirmed finding that the 2022 congressional map was drawn to discourage competition," DiFiore wrote.

While it seemed during Tuesday’s hearing that most of the judges sided with lawyers representing the state and its Democratic lawmakers, that ended up not being the case. Instead the Court of Appeals sided with lower courts, holding that Democrats had unconstitutionally eliminated four previously held Republican districts and added three seats to the Democratic block.

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

In a partial dissent, Judge Shirley Troutman agreed that Democrats failed to draft new district maps in compliance with the New York Constitution but said the effect did not lead to gerrymandering. She also noted that many of the district boundaries in the Legislature’s map were similar to the plans approved by the Independent Redistricting Commission, which means “there is no need for a redistricting plan to be crafted out of whole cloth and adopted by a court.”

Another dissenting opinion, by Judge Rowan Wilson, says Republican electors failed to meet the “extraordinarily high” burden of overturning a legislative action as unconstitutional, and that there has been no factual showing that gerrymandering occurred. 

“Indeed, it is remarkably inaccurate to suggest that our Court is without power to review the Appellate Division’s ruling on the partisan gerrymander claim,” Wilson wrote, noting the question that had been before the Court of Appeals was one of law, not of fact.  

He added that a failed 2021 constitutional amendment and the creation of the new 2022 districts three days after the Independent Redistricting Commission failed to deliver its own revised report is not proof of gerrymandering. “Without more and even with every reasonable inference taken in petitioner’s favor, they do not meet the standard to declare the 2022 redistricting plan unconstitutional,” Wilson wrote in his 29-page dissent.

A third dissent by Judge Jenny Rivera found no procedural errors with the 2022 maps, writing that the state Legislature passed an amendment allowing lawmakers to propose maps if the redistricting commission deadlocked, which was the case here.

The majority’s ruling predictably elicited celebration by Republicans. “The decision today from the Court of Appeals affirms our position that under One-Party Rule, Albany politicians engaged in obvious partisan gerrymandering, violating the State Constitution,” Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said in a statement

Former Republican Congressman John Faso also lauded the decision as a “victory for the People of New York state.”

Senate Majority spokesman Mike Murphy merely said, "We disagree with the Court of Appeals decision and believe in the constitutionality of the Congressional and state legislative maps passed earlier this year. The State Senate maps in particular corrected an egregious partisan gerrymander and have not been overturned on the merits by any court. We will make our case to the special master appointed by the court."

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)

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 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, 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.

DiFiore wrote for the majority Wednesday that “there can be no question that the drafters of the 2014 constitutional amendments and the voters of this state intended compliance with the IRC process to be a constitutionally required precondition to the legislature’s enactment of redistricting legislation.”

She added that, if the court essentially nullified the 2014 amendments, that would “encourage partisans involved in the IRC process to avoid consensus, thereby permitting the legislature to step in and create new maps merely by engineering a stalemate at any state of the IRC process, or even by failing to appoint members or withholding funding from the IRC.”

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