With New York District Lines On Hold, Judge Blesses Possible Backup Plan

A New York appeals court judge on Friday signed off on the appointment of a neutral expert to prepare new congressional district lines that could be used if the state’s highest court upholds a lower-court ruling that struck down maps drawn by Democratic lawmakers.

The judge, Justice Stephen K. Lindley of the Fourth Appellate Department, emphasized in his decision that the substitute maps would only be a backup measure meant to preserve a range of possible remedies as the courts consider a broader legal challenge to the maps brought by Republicans.

But Justice Lindley’s directive raised the specter that an increasingly tangled fight over New York’s freshly drawn congressional districts could yet veer away from Democrats months after they enacted a map that favors their candidates in 22 of 26 districts, and require the state to delay this year’s primary contests from June until August.

The political stakes are high: With the two parties locked in a national battle for control of the House, the swing of just a few seats in New York could theoretically be the difference between a Democratic or Republican majority in Washington next year.

So far, only one trial court judge — a Republican from rural Steuben County — has weighed in on the case. The judge, Patrick F. McAllister, struck down all of the state’s legislative districts last week as a violation of a 2014 state constitutional amendment that outlawed partisan gerrymandering. He ordered lawmakers to redraw the lines with bipartisan support or hand the process over to a special master.

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  • Analysis: For years, the congressional map favored Republicans over Democrats. But in 2022, the map is poised to be surprisingly fair.
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Democrats appealed the decision and they believe they will prevail at either the Appellate Division or at the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. They argue that the maps’ partisan tilt reflects the makeup of a heavily Democratic state like New York, not an attempt to skew the lines for partisan advantage.

Justice Lindley provided for that possibility, too. Even as he gave Justice McAllister approval to appoint a special master to create “standby” maps, Justice Lindley opted to keep in place a stay on most of the lower-court ruling, effectively allowing the election to proceed under the current district maps for now.

“The stay will, among other things, allow candidates for Congress, State Senate and Assembly to file designating petitions by the statutory deadline, and allow the boards of elections to accept such petitions,” he wrote.

If the courts ultimately find that the maps violate the State Constitution, the primaries would proceed as planned in June. If the maps are struck down, the courts would have to decide whether to delay the primaries and order replacement maps, or allow this year’s contests to go forward as scheduled using the Democratic lines and wait until the next election cycle — or schedule special elections — to fix them.

A final decision is expected around the end of April.

Allowing a special master to begin working on backup lines now may increase the chances that the courts could lock in place replacement maps before this year’s elections if they rule against Democrats. The Legislature would almost certainly be given an opportunity by the court to correct them first.

How U.S. Redistricting Works

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What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.

Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.

How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.

Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.

If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.

Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.

Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.

Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, called Justice Lindley’s order a “logical step.”

“Too often, map drawing gets put completely on hold and then by the time a case is decided, there isn’t enough time to redraw maps,” Mr. Li said. “But that doesn’t mean the situation isn’t messy for lawmakers and even more so for people running for office.”

A court-appointed special master drew New York’s congressional lines in 2012 during the last redistricting cycle. In that case, a federal court took over the process because the State Senate and Assembly — which were then controlled by Republicans and Democrats, respectively — simply could not agree enough to approve any House district lines.

Democratic lawyers had argued at a hearing on Thursday against appointing a special master this year before a final decision is reached. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, New York voters supported by national Republican groups, took the opposite position.

On Friday, both parties seemed happy with Judge Lindley’s decision. Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, did not say whether lawmakers would consider drafting new maps before a final ruling, as Justice Lindley had urged them to do.

“We are pleased the stay is continued, allowing the election to move forward, and we look forward to being heard on the appeal in the next couple of weeks,” he said in a statement.

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