Could Democrats Get Another Shot at Redistricting in New York?

A year ago, Democrats were taken to task by New York’s highest court for attempting to gerrymander the state’s congressional districts, and saw their tilted map replaced by more neutral lines that helped Republicans flip four House seats.

Now, with a 2024 rematch approaching, Democratic leaders in Washington and Albany are reviving a legal battle to reopen the mapmaking process and potentially pull the lines back in their direction.

Lawyers paid by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee argued before appellate judges in Albany on Thursday in favor of scrapping the court-drawn districts, and returning the mapmaking powers to New York’s beleaguered redistricting commission — and ultimately the State Legislature that gerrymandered the lines in the first place.

The case will almost certainly rise to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in the coming months. And while a ruling may turn on competing readings of the State Constitution, its significance is unmistakably political, with far-reaching implications for the balance of power in Washington.

Under the current maps drawn by a court-appointed expert, New York is one of the nation’s most competitive House battlegrounds. But if the Legislature is once again given a say, Democratic lawmakers could conceivably flip as many as six of the 11 seats now held by Republicans, offsetting potential Republican gains from a similar case playing out in the Southeast.

“With the likelihood Republicans will re-gerrymander the lines in North Carolina, the legal fight over New York’s lines could determine whether Democrats stay in contention for House control in 2024,” said Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst with the Cook Political Report.

Hours before arguments in Albany, Democrats scored an unexpected victory with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could force Alabama and other southern states to redraw their own congressional maps to create new districts in which Black voters have the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

Still, Mr. Wasserman called the New York suit “pretty close to must-win for Hakeem Jeffries to have a shot at becoming speaker.”

Legal experts are uncertain about the Democrats’ chances of success. Republicans already convinced a lower court judge to dismiss the case. But Democrats are newly optimistic that the lawsuit will ultimately be upheld, given the shifting composition of the state’s top court, where a new chief and associate judge have pushed the bench leftward this spring.

Whatever happens, New York promises to be perhaps the most contested state in the nation for House races next year. Republicans outperformed expectations in New York during the 2022 midterm elections, leaving their candidates positioned to defend six districts President Biden won in 2020, two by double digits.

“We think our chances are good, but it’s not something we are relying on,” said Jay Jacobs, the Democrats’ state party chairman. “If it happens, it’s a bonus.”

But as an analysis by Mr. Wasserman has shown, rearranging those six districts even slightly could make the task nearly prohibitive for Republicans to win in some places. Both parties have begun taking that possibility more seriously.

As the court case proceeded, Democrats in Albany used the final days of this year’s legislative session to try to shore up their electoral prospects in other ways. Democratic supermajorities in both legislative chambers appeared poised to adopt changes weakening New York’s new publicly financed donor-matching program in ways that would benefit incumbents.

Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of government watchdog groups that had hailed the new system for trying to diminish the influence of big-money donors in politics, warned that the changes could “severely roll back the progress” just as the public financing system takes effect.

Republicans, who have aggressively pursued their own gerrymanders in other states, leveled similar criticisms at New York Democrats about the attempt at a redistricting do- over. Savannah Viar, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Democrats were “weaponizing the courts to rig the game.”

“The Democrats, despite all of their rhetoric about fair elections and protecting democracy, are trying to subvert democracy in New York State,” said John Faso, a former congressman who helped orchestrate the successful Republican lawsuit last year that undid the Democrats’ preferred district lines.

Like last year’s legal fight, the new case, Hoffmann vs. Independent Redistricting Commission, revolves around a set of 2014 constitutional amendments intended to remove partisanship from redistricting. They outlaw gerrymandering and create a new, bipartisan commission to draw legislative lines.

That commission failed to reach consensus in 2022. After its members could not even agree to meet to complete their work, the Legislature commandeered the process and passed maps that heavily favored Democrats.

The Republicans sued, and the Court of Appeals ruled that the Legislature had gerrymandered the lines, and violated the constitution by simply going ahead when the commission stopped working. With time running short, the high court told a trial court judge to appoint a neutral expert from out of state to draft replacement districts.

In the new lawsuit, which counts several New York voters as plaintiffs, Democrats are not defending the initial maps. Instead, they argue that the court-approved mapmaking process also ran afoul of the State Constitution.

“The people of New York are presently governed by congressional maps that were drawn by an unelected, out-of-town special master and rubber-stamped by a partisan, right-wing judge,” said Christie Stephenson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jeffries, the House Democratic leader from New York. She added that letting the maps stand would be “undemocratic, unacceptable and unconscionable.”

Aria Branch, the primary lawyer for the Democrats, asked the judges on Thursday to order the redistricting commission to reconvene, more than 12 months after it deadlocked. Doing so could prompt the commission to find new agreement. If it does not, however, the Legislature could step in and draw new lines, this time on surer legal footing.

Republican members of the commission and their allies disagree, and said that the court-drawn maps put in place last year must stand for the remainder of the decade.

A lower court judge, Peter A. Lynch, agreed with that position last September, when he dismissed the suit, ruling that there were no constitutional grounds to reopen the mapmaking process. Democrats’ appealed.

The panel of judges who heard the case on Thursday appeared to be grappling with whether Democrats had filed their suit in a timely manner and whether the Court of Appeals intended for the map imposed last year to last for the remainder of the decade. They were expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks, after which it will likely be pushed to the Court of Appeals.

The composition of the court has been the subject of a tense, intraparty tussle since the retirement of the former chief judge, Janet DiFiore, last summer, not long after she wrote the majority decision striking down Democrats’ redistricting plan.

Progressives who run the State Senate rejected Hector LaSalle, the first chief judge nominee put forward by Gov. Kathy Hochul, before ultimately accepting the elevation of a more liberal alternative in Judge Rowan D. Wilson.

The Senate objected to Judge LaSalle’s previous rulings related to abortion rights and unions. But Republicans and some neutral observers argued that liberal lawmakers were also shopping for a judge who would be more likely to take their view on redistricting matters.

Democrats denied that, but may indeed have a more receptive audience in Judge Wilson, who as an associate judge, dissented from the majority opinion in the 2022 redistricting case. At the time, Judge Wilson concluded that the state constitution gave the Legislature final authority in redistricting.

Two other members of the seven-person court shared that view in whole or in part. If they maintain those positions, that could leave the case in the hands of the court’s other new member, Caitlin Halligan, whose position is not clear to court watchers.

Grace Ashford contributed reporting.

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