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The NY Courts Blew Up the Democrats' Redistricting Plans
A surprise ruling will have consequences for years to come
Count me among those who were surprised by the New York Court of Appeals yesterday. The highest court in the state ruled that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when they decided themselves to draw new congressional and State Senate districts. A court-appointed special master will now redraw House and Senate districts again after the Democrats already released maps in the decennial redistricting process.
The majority opinion also found the maps violated a 2014 amendment barring gerrymandering. New York’s courts hadn’t interfered in the state’s redistricting process since 1960, making their decision yesterday all the more shocking.
All of this has profound local and national implications. Democrats in the state legislature, with input from national leaders, had engineered highly favorable House districts that would have likely allowed House Democrats to net at least three seats in New York. These gains could have offset losses elsewhere in a midterm environment that is forecasted to be dismal for Democrats. Neutral or GOP-leaning maps drawn by the special master will check these ambitions and perhaps allow Republicans to retake the House in November.
Along with outside experts, I was surprised because it was never clear to me the courts could prove Democrats gerrymandered the House districts. Yes, a new 11th district in Staten Island and Brooklyn roping in Park Slope rather than Sheepshead Bay aided Democrats, but there was no golden rule stating such a district needed to fuse Staten Island with southern Brooklyn. The oddly-shaped 3rd district, leaping across the Long Island Sound and joining the North Shore to Westchester, had some historical precedent. Meanwhile, the State Senate districts were favorable to Democrats, but the state overall has a heavy Democratic registration advantage and Joe Biden won about 61 percent of the vote in 2020. Republicans in the Senate, under any sensible redistricting plan, should be nowhere near the majority.
The procedural ruling doomed Democrats and you have to question, in retrospect, whether the lawyers for the Assembly and Senate majorities understood what they were doing. Under the flawed redistricting scheme designed by the disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo a decade ago, a quasi-independent commission was set up to redraw the lines, with the legislature supposedly having the ability to reject the commission’s maps and draw their own if the bipartisan appointees couldn’t agree on one set of maps. This happened.
Yet the Court of Appeals, concurring with lower courts, ruled the legislature could not actually take over the map-drawing process. Instead, the legislature could have replaced commissioners, brought an action to compel them to act, or asked a court to draw a map, according to the majority opinion.
The Court of Appeals was oddly unmoved by the logistical challenges their ruling created. Earlier in the year, Michael Li of the Brennan Center had suggested a more likely or reasonable outcome would have been to draw new lines for the next election cycle and allow campaigns already underway to compete under the lines the Democrats sketched. A primary date had been set for June 28th. Instead, primaries for House and State Senate races will now be shifted to August while other primaries will remain in June. New York has a history of bifurcated primaries—for much of the 2010s, federal and state primaries fell in June and September respectively, thanks to a different court ruling—but this new split will be the strangest yet, undoubtedly confusing most voters. Since the Court of Appeals did not directly address State Assembly maps, the Assembly primaries will remain, for now, in June. So will statewide primaries. Kathy Hochul will still have to secure the Democratic nomination in June. A State Senate or House candidate, meanwhile, will need to win an August primary.
What will the special master do? Dr. Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, now may be the most powerful man in New York, tasked with redrawing the House and State Senate lines anew. A Republican judge in Steuben County appointed Cervas, which will give Democrats pause. Those who want to testify at a hearing in front of Cervas will have to travel to the Steuben County courthouse in Bath, New York on May 6. By May 24, Cervas will have to produce final maps for the House. No similar schedule exists yet for the State Senate maps.
In New York City, major questions hang over the Senate maps. Will two newly-created districts survive? Following population trends—and hoping to bolster their own caucus numbers—Senate leaders carved out an Asian-majority seat in Brooklyn and a Latino-majority Brooklyn-Queens seat. In the latter, socialist Kristen Gonzalez looked like a front-runner. Now she may have nowhere to run at all.
If Cervas defers to recent precedent, Democrats are in trouble. The State Senate maps of the last decade were a gerrymander engineered by the Republican majority that ruled Albany for much of the last half century. The House maps, in turn, were drawn by another judge after the legislative leaders of a decade ago failed to agree on new district lines in a timely manner. The judge of that period tried to draw district lines largely similar to what came before. House maps of that era were designed chiefly to protect incumbents of both parties, since Republican and Democratic leaders alike had to negotiate the new maps and cared most about horse-trading over favored lawmakers. At no time were House districts, in recent times, designed solely with the intent to grow the Democratic caucus in D.C.
There is a bitter irony to the Court of Appeals ruling that should not be overlooked. Democratic leaders in the state legislature were one judge away from winning outright and keeping the favorable maps they had drawn. One judge who ruled against them, Anthony Cannataro, was nominated and confirmed just last year. There was little controversy associated with his confirmation, which went through the State Senate like all Court of Appeals nominees. Later in 2021, not long before he resigned, Cuomo had the opportunity to nominate another judge to fill a vacancy on the highest court. In consultation with State Senate leadership, Cuomo chose Madeline Singas, the Nassau County District Attorney. Singas joined Cannataro and two other judges, a former and current Republican, in striking down the Democrats’ maps.
Progressives bitterly opposed Singas, a conservative Democrat who was opposed to recent criminal justice reforms and was notorious for shielding evidence from defendants. When she was a young prosecutor in Queens, Singas withheld evidence that would have exonerated three men falsely accused of murder. They would spend decades in prison due to her actions. Ultimately, only 10 Democrats in the State Senate—the body’s most progressive members—voted against Singas while 32 voted in favor. Singas had the strong support of Michael Gianaris, the body’s deputy leader and a fellow Greek-American. The two Democrats had a long-standing relationship that overrode Gianaris’ own progressive convictions. He is an ally of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a former endorser of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Would another judge on the Court of Appeals have voted differently than Singas? We will never know. It’s worth noting Shirley Troutman, Hochul’s sole appointee, joined the dissent with two other judges. (Troutman, though, wrote a separate opinion that the legislature didn’t have the right to draw the maps but could pick one of the independent commission’s proposals as a remedy. The commission did produce one set of maps that was more Democrat-friendly.) Proponents of independent redistricting are correct in that New York’s process was a farce, with legislative leaders in backrooms sketching maps with no public input. Ideally, an independent group of experts—not one man—would have drawn these districts in consultation with the public. Ideally, this would be done everywhere.
But it isn’t, and as this redistricting cycle ends, it’s clear Democrats are losing again. Republicans nationally played a zero-sum game, heavily gerrymandering House districts in most of the states they controlled. In a rare number of cases, the courts stopped them. Democrats were hoping to counter them in New York. They failed, whether on the merits or not, and will have to stand by and wait for a special master to decide their fate. Given that the Democratic Party cares much more than election and reality-denying Republicans about the future of democracy, this is not the greatest of outcomes.