All of New York’s new legislative maps, redrawn by state Democrats, were declared unconstitutional on Thursday in a lower-court ruling that blocked their use in this year’s election, potentially throwing the midterm contests into turmoil.
In a sweeping ruling that surprised even some Republicans, Justice Patrick F. McAllister of the Steuben County Supreme Court said that the map drawing process led by Democrats had been irrevocably tainted.
The judge, a Republican, also found that the state’s new congressional maps, which favor Democrats in 22 of 26 seats, had broken New York’s new prohibition on partisan gerrymandering — essentially accusing Democrats of using the same practices for which they have decried Republicans.
Justice McAllister gave the Democrat-led Legislature until April 11 to come up with new “bipartisanly supported maps” for Congress, the State Senate and Assembly. He said that he would appoint an independent special master to draw the lines if lawmakers failed to do so, raising the possibility that June’s party primaries could be delayed.
State Democrats immediately said they would appeal the ruling, a move that would likely stay Justice McAllister’s decision and could mean that this year’s elections proceed apace on the lines adopted by Democrats in February.
What to Know About Redistricting
“This is one step in the process,” said Michael Murphy, a spokesman for the State Senate Democrats. “We always knew this case would be decided by the appellate courts.”
Democrats could challenge the ruling in either the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court or the State Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court. Both venues are expected to be more favorable to Democrats than rural Steuben County.
“The plaintiffs got what they wanted by going to court in Steuben County,” said Jeffrey Wice, an adjunct professor at New York Law School’s Census and Redistricting Institute. “Whether they carry their victory all the way to the State Court of Appeals is an uphill battle for them.”
The plaintiffs in the case were voters across the state, but their lawsuit was financed and supervised by Republicans in Albany and Washington who sued almost as soon as Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the new maps into law in February.
Republicans celebrated the ruling on Thursday and vowed to prevail on appeal. John J. Faso, a former congressman from New York who is serving as a spokesman for the Republican plaintiffs, called it a “complete victory” for petitioners and for New Yorkers.
How U.S. Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
Though Justice McAllister did not explicitly find the State Senate or Assembly maps to be unconstitutional gerrymanders, he agreed with the plaintiffs that the congressional map had been drawn by Democrats for a partisan purpose.
New York voters adopted a constitutional amendment in 2014 explicitly barring partisan gerrymandering.
“The court finds by clear evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt that the congressional map was unconstitutionally drawn with political bias,” he wrote.
State courts have played a growing role in moderating what is essentially a 50-state political battle, after the federal courts were largely sidelined by a 2019 Supreme Court ruling. Particularly in states where one party controls the mapmaking process, they have provided the only real venue for voters and members of the opposing party to challenge partisan gerrymandering.
Judges in Ohio and North Carolina have already ruled against maps where Republican-led legislatures drew lines that clearly favored their party’s candidates. And just last week, a judge in Maryland ruled that lines that would have given Democrats an advantage in at least seven of eight districts were an “extreme gerrymander” and gave lawmakers just a few days to attempt a new configuration.