WASHINGTON, D.C. — New York’s highest court will hold oral argument today in a redistricting lawsuit to determine if the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) must reconvene to draw a new congressional map.
This is the latest action in a lawsuit filed on behalf of voters arguing that the IRC failed to complete its mandatory redistricting duties when the commission deadlocked in January 2022, leading the Legislature, and not the IRC, to pass a congressional map.
New York’s redistricting process is in the national spotlight as it could impact which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives in 2025. The state’s 26 districts are currently held by 15 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
The rules of the IRC dictate that if the Legislature votes down two map proposals, the Legislature then draws the maps.
In 2014, New York residents approved a constitutional amendment to establish a 10-member independent redistricting commission by a resounding 15-point margin. The amendment outlined that the commission would be 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. Prior to the IRC’s creation, the New York Legislature was responsible for map drawing.
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.
In April 2021, after the release of 2020 census data, 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.
The IRC never presented a second set of maps to the Legislature and this deadlock on the commission led to the Legislature intervening to enact new maps.
The Legislature-drawn congressional and state Senate maps were struck down in state court and replaced with new maps for the 2022 elections. The state Assembly map was allowed to remain in place. However, a separate lawsuit eventually resulted in a new IRC-drawn map this April.
The petitioners in the lawsuit argue that the IRC’s failure to submit a second set of congressional and legislative maps to the New York 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.”
The petitioners asked a state trial court to issue a writ of mandamus (a court order compelling a specific action) directing the IRC and its members to fulfill the commission’s constitutional duty by submitting new map proposals that could be adopted immediately after the 2022 elections. The trial court dismissed the case in September 2022 and the petitioners appealed the court’s dismissal of the lawsuit to a state appellate court, which allowed the case to continue.
“It is undisputed that the IRC failed to perform this duty.”
In July of this year, the appellate court agreed with the petitioners, ruling that the IRC must redraw the state’s congressional map and submit the map to the Legislature. The July 13 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. It is undisputed that the IRC failed to perform this duty.”
The appellate court further concluded that democracy relies on the IRC completing its mandatory duty, ruling, “The right to participate in the democratic process is the most essential right in our system of governance.”
The order also called attention to the anti-democratic whims that can overtake the redistricting process: “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.”
After the appellate court ordered the IRC to reconvene, Republican intervenors and members of the IRC filed notices of appeal. As a result, the decision requiring the IRC to reconvene was automatically paused. The petitioners asked New York’s highest court to void the automatic pause but the court declined to do so.
While this decision does not prevent the IRC from reconvening on its own volition, the IRC is not currently required by the court to do so. Given its prior conduct, it is reasonable to assume that the commission will not reconvene on its own volition.
With the case now before the state’s highest court, today’s oral argument will determine if the IRC must reconvene and draw a new congressional map ahead of next year’s elections.