ALBANY, N.Y. — A legal challenge that could eventually give New York Democrats a second crack at drawing new congressional district lines continued to work its way through the courts on Thursday, with a mid-level state appellate court hearing arguments that could restart redistricting by the end of the summer.
The gerrymandered lines drawn in 2022 that would have made Democrats the favorites in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts were thrown out on procedural grounds. That was the start of a rough year for Democrats in the state, who wound up winning only 15 of the 26 districts drawn by the courts and helped fuel Republicans’ ability to win back the U.S. House.
But lawyers with ties to the national party are now seeking to start the process from scratch — a move that could potentially help Democrats in 2024, particularly in the New York City suburbs where Republicans flipped three seats and will serve as one of the nation’s top battlegrounds.
“For all their pontificating and high-minded rhetoric about trying to defend democracy, well here they’re trying to subvert it,” former Rep. John Faso, who has helped guide the GOP’s legal strategy around redistricting in recent years, said after the hearing. “Their goal here, if they win, is to put this case back into the backrooms of Albany and D.C. so they can gerrymander the whole state.”
A constitutional amendment New Yorkers approved in 2014 says that an “Independent Redistricting Commission” draws a set of maps, then the Legislature can vote them up or down. If they are voted down, the commission draws a second set of maps that are once again given to the Legislature. If they’re voted down a second time, then lawmakers can draw their own lines.
But the commission last year never got around to producing a second set of maps. The Democratic-dominated Legislature drew its own lines, though they were ultimately scrapped once the courts intervened and drew the current lines for New York’s 26 House seats.
At issue now is whether the maps drawn by the courts were a one-off deal used only for the 2022 elections.
“The IRC has a constitutional obligation to finish drawing New York’s congressional map,” said attorney Aria Branch of the Elias Law Group, a Democratic-aligned firm which brought the case. The court “drew a map in emergency circumstances for the 2022 elections only. That emergency is now over.”
If they win, the entire process would presumably start over. A reconstituted redistricting committee would hold hearings throughout the state this fall and produce new plans by January. If two sets of the maps are voted down, Democrats in the state Legislature could have a new chance to pick up the pen and draw more advantageous lines.
Republicans argue that such a solution would be off the table. They point to constitutional language that says that any redistricting plans “shall be in force” until after the next decennial census “unless modified pursuant to a court order.”
“The Legislature acted unconstitutionally with an unconstitutional gerrymander,” Faso said. “The only remedy was for the court to impose a remedy, and that’s what they did.”
The five judges who heard the case on Thursday repeatedly indicated that the 2022 decision from the Court of Appeals, New York’s top court, did not leave them with much guidance as to whether they envisioned the maps they ordered as permanent or a stopgap.
And the case will almost certainly end up back before the Court of Appeals no matter what Thursday’s judges wind up deciding.
“I can’t see how it won’t,” said New York Law School senior fellow Jeff Wice. “Either side’s going to appeal.”
And there’s a new wrinkle if the case ends up before the state’s top court. The court, which decided 5-4 in favor of Republicans in 2022, has since been revamped. Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a one-time Republican who wrote the opinion in favor of the GOP, resigned last summer. Caitlin Halligan, who is viewed as more solidly Democratic, was sworn in on Wednesday.
New maps wouldn’t be a silver bullet for what ailed Democrats in New York in 2022. Even if the Democratic-drawn maps had remained on the books, they would have likely only won one additional seat due to terrible showings on Long Island, where Republicans swept all four seats, and parts of the northern New York City suburbs.
But new maps could, even if the changes are slight, help Democrats in some key congressional districts in a presidential election year in the heavily blue state.
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