Judge throws out New York District lines, citing Democrats’ ‘bias’

A New York state judge ruled on Thursday that Democrats unconstitutionally designated new congressional districts for partisan advantage, and he blocked their use in this year’s election, potentially throwing out mid-term contests. tenure in turmoil.

In a sweeping ruling, state Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. McAllister found that Democrats who control Albany drew congressional lines for partisan advantage, violating a new constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering passed by voters from New York.

Judge McAllister, a Republican from rural Steuben County, accused Democrats of adopting tactics they denounced for Republicans to create a map that gave them an advantage in 22 of New York’s 26 seats. He called this gerrymandering a “scourge” on democracy.

“The court finds with clear evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the map of Congress was unconstitutionally drawn with political bias,” he wrote in the notice.

The judge also rejected new Senate and State Assembly districts that he said were the product of an irrevocably flawed mapping process. He ordered Democrats to come up with new “bi-party backed maps” by April 11.

If they fail, Justice McAllister said he would appoint an independent special master to draw them, raising the possibility that candidates already campaigning will be left in limbo for weeks and the primaries scheduled for June will be delayed. .

The decision, which Democrats say would be overturned on appeal, was their party’s latest setback in what has become a high-stakes national redistricting battle that could help determine which party controls the House of Representatives this year. next.

Last week, a judge in Maryland ruled that district lines that would have given Democrats an advantage in at least seven of eight districts were an “extreme gerrymander” and gave lawmakers just days to try a new configuration. . Days earlier, the United States Supreme Court struck down a legislative map of Wisconsin that would have created a new majority black district. And now it looks like a new Ohio House card that heavily favors Republicans will stand for 2022, despite a state court ruling that declared it partisan.

Democrats see New York as perhaps the party’s best opportunity to use its unified control of a big blue state to flip a handful of congressional seats as it tries to prevent a Republican takeover of the city. House of Representatives in November.

The New York ruling came the same day a federal judge in Florida ruled that parts of a year-old Republican-backed election law were unconstitutional and racially motivated. A North Carolina judge has also previously ruled against maps where Republican-led legislatures have drawn lines that clearly favor their party’s candidates.

For New Yorkers, the politically charged redistricting saga captured in Thursday’s ruling is what they hoped to avoid when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 to hand over the mapping process largely to a bipartisan outside commission like those used in some other states.

The commission first began its work last year with considerable promise. But instead of removing partisanship from the process, as many had hoped, he got bogged down in it: Democratic and Republican members this winter failed to agree on a single set of cards they could officially recommend to Albany state legislators for ratification.

That left Democrats — who control the governorship and supermajorities in the Senate and state Assembly for the first time in decades — more or less free to draw whatever cards they want.

In February, they approved new lines from Congress that could put up to four current House Republicans at risk, a change bigger than in any other state, moving the lines to Long Island, New York and the upstate. The state Senate map promised similar Democratic benefits.

Justice McAllister challenged that process, saying Democratic lawmakers had effectively attempted to change the state Constitution and subvert voters’ wills by unilaterally drawing maps after the commission dropped out. He stipulated that any replacements must be approved by bipartisan majorities, despite Democratic control in the capital, or the courts would step in to set the lines.

Justice McAllister did not explicitly find the Senate or State Assembly cards to be unconstitutional gerrymanders. But he agreed with the plaintiffs that the Congressional maps violated language in the 2014 amendment that states that districts “shall not be drawn to discourage competition” or to intentionally favor or harm any candidate or office. particular political party.

“Cutting discrimination hurts everyone because it tends to silence minority voices,” Justice McAllister wrote. “When we choose to ignore the benefits of compromise, we not only hurt others, we hurt ourselves as well.”

In court, Democrats insisted the changes are not just constitutional, but a natural outcome in a state where right-wing rural areas are rapidly losing population and Democrat-friendly urban areas are expanding. On Thursday, they said they were confident the higher courts would show deference to the Legislative Assembly and overturn Justice McAllister’s ruling.

In a joint statement, Governor Kathy Hochul and Letitia James, the state’s attorney general, said they would appeal the decision quickly.

“It’s a step in the process,” said Michael Murphy, spokesman for the state Senate Democrats. “We always knew that this case would be decided by the courts of appeal.”

Democrats could challenge the decision in the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division or the State Court of Appeals – New York’s highest court, whose members were all appointed by Democrats. Analysts said both sites are likely to be more Democratic-friendly than rural Steuben County. Either way, their appeal will almost certainly lead to a stay of Justice McAllister’s decision.

“Plaintiffs got what they wanted by going to Steuben County Court,” said Jeffrey Wice, assistant professor at the Census and Redistricting Institute at New York Law School. “Whether they take their victory all the way to the State Court of Appeals is an uphill battle for them.”

Regardless of the final ruling, Mr Wice said it was highly unlikely that the higher courts would suspend this year’s election calendar, as Judge McAllister suggested in his ruling. The period for potential candidates in New York to collect petitions to qualify to run in the new districts is expected to end next week. Restarting the process would be costly and chaotic.

The plaintiffs in the case were statewide voters, but their lawsuit was funded and overseen by Republicans in Albany and Washington who sued almost as soon as Ms. Hochul signed the new cards in February.

Republicans, who have made stopping New York’s new maps a top national priority, celebrated the decision on Thursday and predicted they would prevail on appeal.

“New York Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for what they tried to do here,” said Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

But it was not strictly the supporters who rejoiced at the result. Jeremy M. Creelan, who helped draft the 2014 Constitutional Amendment as then-Governor’s Assistant. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday’s decision should calm critics who have argued the changes were wholly ineffective.

“It is clear that the constitutional amendment has fulfilled the critical function of reform that was intended,” he said.

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