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N.Y.'s top court tosses congressional map over Democratic gerrymandering

The court will hire an outside expert to draw a new map before this year's elections.
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New York’s top court invalidated the state’s congressional map Wednesday, ruling that Democrats' redistricting process and resulting maps violated the state constitution.

The 4-3 decision is a blow to Democrats who would most likely have won three additional seats in the U.S. House based on the political boundary lines, and it is likely to help Republicans secure a modest lead in national redistricting.

The court, which also invalidated the state Senate map, said in its ruling that the state's June 28 primary will "likely" need to be moved and suggested that the lower court work with election officials to plan an August primary.

The Court of Appeals on Tuesday heard oral arguments in the suit, in which Republican voters had claimed that Democrats violated the state's new constitutionally mandated process for redistricting and gerrymandered the maps for their political benefit.

In 2014, New York voters created a bipartisan commission redistricting process, writing anti-gerrymandering reforms into the state constitution. But when the commission failed to produce a final set of maps, the Democratic-controlled Legislature drew and enacted its own maps this year.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said the resulting congressional map was a “master class in gerrymandering."

In court Wednesday, Democrats defended that as a lawful solution to the commission's failure and argued that the congressional map that Republicans claimed was a partisan gerrymander had actually been designed to protect minority voting rights.

The court disagreed. In a majority opinion signed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the court wrote that the Legislature had clearly defied anti-gerrymandering reforms by doing “exactly what they would have done had the 2014 constitutional reforms never been passed.”

The court has sent the case back to a lower court, where an outside expert — known as a special master — will be hired to redraw the state maps.

Democrats had urged the court to let the Legislature fix any problems with the maps, but the court said the "procedural unconstitutionality" of the maps is "incapable of a legislative cure."

“Nearly a century and a half ago, we wrote that ‘[t]he Constitution is the voice of the people speaking in their sovereign capacity, and it must be heeded,’” the court concluded. “Today, we again uphold those constitutional standards by adhering to the will of the People of this State and giving meaningful effect to the 2014 constitutional amendments."

In a statement, Mike Murphy, the communications director for the state Senate Democratic majority, said, “We are reviewing the decision.” 

State courts have emerged as powerful policemen in the 2021 redistricting cycle, particularly in states like New York and Ohio, where voters put new anti-gerrymandering rules on the books during the last decade.

"The hero of the cycle may be state courts," said Li, the redistricting expert. "A lot of people despaired when federal courts stepped out of the partisan gerrymandering business, but voters are finding new ways to challenge bad maps."