On Thursday, July 13, an appellate state court ordered New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) to redraw the state’s congressional map. This decision stems from a lawsuit brought in June 2022 by New York voters, alleging that the IRC failed to complete its mandatory redistricting duties. This decision requires the IRC to reconvene and draw a new congressional map, but Republicans have already stated they will appeal. Now, New York’s highest court will likely have the final say on the Empire State’s congressional map.
As we head into 2024, several factors — including that New York’s congressional delegation could determine control of the U.S. House in 2024 — put New York redistricting back in the national spotlight. So how did we get here anyway?
Between the 2010 and 2020 redistricting cycles, New Yorkers passed redistricting reforms.
During the 2010 redistricting process, the New York Legislature was responsible for map drawing. In 2014, New York residents approved a constitutional amendment to establish a 10-member independent redistricting commission (IRC) composed of four Democratic legislative appointees, four Republican legislative appointees and two members without a party affiliation who draw the state’s Senate, Assembly and congressional maps.
The IRC’s voting rules are based on party control of the Legislature; with Democrats in the majority of both chambers, the maps for the 2020 redistricting cycle needed seven commission votes and the Legislature’s approval.
The rules of the IRC are such that if the Legislature votes down two map proposals, the Legislature then draws the maps. After the release of 2020 census data in April 2021, the commission could not reach a consensus on new maps so it presented two different plans to the Legislature — one by Democratic members of the IRC and one by Republican members of the IRC — and the Legislature rejected both. Rather than risk having the Democratic-controlled Legislature draw the maps if lawmakers rejected a second plan, Republicans on the IRC stalled and refused to meet, according to the petitioners who brought the lawsuit decided on July 13.
Ultimately, deadlock on the commission led to the Legislature intervening to enact new maps.
The IRC failed to redraw and vote on a set of congressional, Senate and Assembly district maps by the deadline. The IRC had until Jan. 26, 2022 to attempt a redraw, but again, the IRC was at an impasse.
Democrats in the Legislature attempted to end the deadlock by passing a law that allowed the Legislature to draw maps in the event of such an impasse. A set of Assembly, Senate and congressional maps were signed into law on Feb. 3, 2022. Then came the lawsuits.
On the same day that Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed New York’s first set of maps into law, Republican voters filed a lawsuit challenging the Empire State’s congressional map.
On Feb. 3, 2022, a group of Republican voters filed a lawsuit challenging New York’s congressional map. The lawsuit made two central arguments: the IRC and the Legislature did not follow the state constitution’s mandated process for redistricting and that the congressional map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander that favors Democrats. Soon after the initial petition was filed, the petitioners amended their petition to also challenge the state Senate map.
After a trial was held on March 31, 2022, the trial court blocked the congressional, state Senate and state Assembly maps and ordered the creation of new maps. Even though this lawsuit only challenged the congressional and state Senate maps, the judge determined that new Assembly districts similarly violated the state constitution because the “same faulty process was used for all three maps.” The case was appealed and ultimately wound up before New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.
Eventually, New York’s highest court struck down the congressional and reinstated the state’s legislative maps.
On April 21, 2022 an intermediate appellate court struck down the congressional map and reinstated both legislative maps. A plurality of the New York appellate court disagreed with the trial court that the maps were unconstitutionally enacted and were invalid as a result.
The appellate court instead held that due to the nature of the IRC’s deadlock, nothing “expressly prohibits the legislature from assuming its historical role of redistricting and reapportionment if the IRC fails to complete its own constitutional duty.” Since the legislative maps were only struck down for this procedural violation, the appellate court reinstated the state Assembly and Senate districts.
However, even though the appellate court found that the process was legally valid, the court did agree with the trial court that the congressional map was drawn with partisan intent “to discourage competition and favor democrats in violation” of the New York Constitution. Thus, the appellate court also struck down New York’s congressional map. The respondents appealed to the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.
On April 27, 2022, after oral argument in the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court struck down the congressional and state Senate maps and sent the case back to the trial court.
Back in the trial court, a court-appointed special master drew remedial maps for the 2022 elections.
When the state’s highest court struck down the congressional and state Senate maps, the case went back to the trial court with specific instructions for the trial court to have a special master redraw both maps.
To prevent New Yorkers from voting under unconstitutional maps, the trial court delayed the June primaries to August. While the congressional and state Senate primary elections were originally scheduled for June 28, 2022, the court moved the primary elections for these races to Aug. 23. Elections for the state Assembly remained in June.
On May 21, 2022 the trial court adopted new congressional and state Senate maps drawn by a special master. These maps were used for the 2022 midterm elections, starting with the primaries in August. Specifically, the congressional map drawn by the special master was more competitive than the overturned map, with 21 of 26 seats nominally Democratic, but the districts had much closer margins between Democrats and Republicans.
Meanwhile, a group of New York voters filed a lawsuit challenging New York’s Assembly map.
In May 2022, three New York voters filed a lawsuit that challenged the state’s new Assembly map. The petitioners argued that the state Assembly map violated the New York Constitution because the Legislature bypassed the citizen-led IRC’s authority to enact the districts in violation of a 2014 amendment.
The lawsuit pointed to the fact that a trial court presiding over the case involving the congressional and state Senate maps struck down the Assembly map for this reason. The petitioners used this argument despite the fact that the Assembly map was reinstated on appeal because it was not initially challenged in the original lawsuit.
The trial court denied the petitioners’ requests and subsequently denied their petition, so they appealed. While the appellate court did agree that the Assembly map was enacted through an unconstitutional process, it found that it was too late to adopt a new map for the 2022 elections. The case went back to the trial court, which ultimately ordered the IRC to reconvene and pass a new map. Nearly a year later, in April 2023, the IRC drew a new Assembly map, which the Legislature adopted.
One critical lawsuit will determine the fate of New York’s congressional map.
With new maps in place for the 2022 elections, one loose end remains: The IRC never followed through with its constitutional duty to propose a second set of maps to the Legislature. On June 28, 2022, — the same day the 2022 primary for congressional and state Senate races was supposed to be held — voters filed a lawsuit against the IRC and its members alleging that the IRC failed to complete its mandatory redistricting duties.
The petitioners argue that “the IRC’s failure to send a second set of maps to the Legislature not only stymied the constitutional procedure enacted by New York voters, but also resulted in a map that does not properly reflect the substantive redistricting criteria contained in the Redistricting Amendments.” On Sept. 12, 2022, a trial court dismissed the case, and a month later, on Oct. 17, 2022, the petitioners appealed the court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
On Thursday, July 13, an appellate state court ordered New York’s IRC to redraw the state’s congressional map.
The order states that “[t]he IRC had an indisputable duty under the NY Constitution to submit a second set of maps upon the rejection of its first set…The language of NY Constitution…makes clear that this duty is mandatory, not discretionary.”
The court concluded that democracy relies on the IRC completing its mandatory duty:
The right to participate in the democratic process is the most essential right in our system of governance. The procedures governing the redistricting process, all too easily abused by those who would seek to minimize the voters’ voice and entrench themselves in the seats of power, must be guarded as jealously as the right to vote itself; in granting this petition, we return the matter to its constitutional design. Accordingly, we direct the IRC to commence its duties forthwith.
Republicans have already stated they will appeal this decision.
After multiple lawsuits, here is where New York’s legislative and congressional maps stand.
State Assembly Map: Redrawn and enacted.
State Senate Map: Reinstated by the state’s highest court.
Congressional Map: IRC is ordered to redraw, but New York’s highest court will likely have the ultimate say.
New York’s highest court, which has gained a progressive chief judge since the maps were last before the court, will likely have the final say on the state’s congressional map. While we cannot predict what will happen before the state’s highest court, it is notable that now-Chief Judge Rowan D. Wilson dissented in the April 2022 Court of Appeals decision requiring the congressional and state Senate maps to be redrawn.
Wilson concluded: “After a review of the record, I am certain that the petitioners failed to satisfy the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard. By that, I do not mean to say that I know the Legislature did not draw some districts in a way that violated our State Constitution; rather, the evidence here does not prove that to be the case at the level of certainty required to invalidate the 2022 redistricting as unconstitutional. Perhaps with a different record, petitioners could make such a showing, but they have failed to do so here.”
As New York’s congressional map hangs in the balance, the decision ordering the IRC to reconvene serves as an important reminder that redistricting is not a once in a decade activity and that state courts play a critical role in the redistricting process.