New York Court Orders District Maps to Be Redrawn for Midterms

In a major victory for fair maps Wednes­day, the New York Court of Appeals struck down the state’s congres­sional and state senate district maps and ordered them redrawn by a court-appoin­ted neut­ral expert in time for the 2022 midterms.

The New York case is the latest where voters — both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans — have turned to state courts and state consti­tu­tions to ensure fair voting maps. The increased prom­in­ence of state courts is a shift from the past, when most claims about partisan gerry­man­der­ing were litig­ated in federal court. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling barring courts from hear­ing partisan gerry­man­der­ing claims under the federal consti­tu­tion and the subsequent fail­ure of Congress to pass new federal anti-gerry­man­der­ing legis­la­tion has left state courts the last line of defense against extreme gerry­man­der­ing.

This cycle, state courts have inval­id­ated Repub­lican-drawn congres­sional maps in North Caro­lina, Ohio, and Kansas and Demo­cratic-drawn congres­sional map in Mary­land and now New York on partisan gerry­man­der­ing grounds, and a closely watched state court case chal­len­ging Flor­id­a’s aggress­ively gerry­mandered congres­sional map is pending. Legis­lat­ive maps have also been struck down so far this redis­trict­ing cycle by state courts in Alaska, North Caro­lina, Ohio, and Tennessee.

The congres­sional map origin­ally passed by New York’s Demo­cratic controlled legis­lature on party lines was expec­ted to trans­form a congres­sional deleg­a­tion that had 19 Demo­crats and 8 Repub­lic­ans into one with 22 Demo­crats and only 4 Repub­lic­ans. (New York lost a congres­sional seat after the 2020 Census.)

In order­ing the maps to be redrawn, the high court held that Demo­cratic lawmakers had not followed the process mandated by the New York State Consti­tu­tion for adopt­ing maps. It also found that the congres­sional map was an uncon­sti­tu­tional partisan gerry­mander under reforms approved by New York voters in 2014. However, the court reversed a lower court ruling also strik­ing down the state assembly map since no party had raised chal­lenges to that map.

The redraw­ing of New York’s congres­sional and state senate maps now will be over­seen by the state trial court in Steuben County, which has appoin­ted Carne­gie Mellon Univer­sity professor Jonathan Cervas to propose new maps with input from stake­hold­ers and other inter­ested parties. The new ruling endorsed the lower court’s exist­ing order direct­ing Cervas to hold a hear­ing on proposed congres­sional maps on May 6 and to submit a proposed map by May 16. He will submit a final congres­sional map to the court by May 24. A similar fast-track sched­ule is likely to be adop­ted for new state senate maps.

The New York Court of Appeals ruling recog­nized that as a result of the need to redraw maps “it will likely be neces­sary to move the congres­sional and senate primary elec­tions [from June] to August” but said that it was confid­ent that the trial court, in consulta­tion with elec­tion offi­cials, could develop a new, work­able sched­ule. The court rejec­ted Demo­cratic lawmakers’ request that they first be given an oppor­tun­ity to adopt new maps, find­ing that “the proced­ural uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the congres­sional and senate maps is, at this junc­ture, incap­able of a legis­lat­ive cure.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that partisan gerry­man­der­ing claims were beyond the reach of federal courts, many despaired that the Court was open­ing the door to unchecked abuses. The good news for voters, however, is that state courts have been increas­ingly will­ing to step up where federal courts have stepped out. And in contrast to federal courts, which befud­dlingly struggled for decades over the proper stand­ard for gauging gerry­man­der­ing, state courts have found the issue to be straight­for­ward, manage­able, and well within the scope of tradi­tional func­tions performed by judges.

To be sure, state courts are unlikely to be a complete panacea for gerry­man­der­ing, so federal and state-level reforms remain crit­ical. But in the grow­ing string of state court victor­ies, the fight for fair maps is show­ing unex­pec­ted vigor and Amer­ican voters are the winner.