ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s new district lines landed before New York’s top court on Tuesday as the seven judges of the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether maps that would leave Democrats well-positioned to pick up three seats in Congress should stay in place.
A decision is expected by the end of the week and could be handed down as soon as Tuesday afternoon or evening. A majority of the questions from judges, who were all appointed by Democrats, indicated they were grappling with the more general subject of what their options might be this late in the process.
The ruling by the state's highest court will play an instrumental role in how many Democrats or Republicans will be elected to the House in New York, where Democrats now control 19 of its 27 seats but is losing a seat this year.
Some of the discussion on Tuesday focused on the questions that were discussed at length in lower courts — where the lines were thrown out last week. Did the Democratic-dominated Legislature ever have the authority to draw the lines, after a commission tasked with drawing a couple of advisory plans never finished its work? And is there enough evidence to say that the lines were improperly gerrymandered?
The questioning seemed to leave open the possibility that at least several judges agreed that the lines seem problematic, though did not yet see an obvious path to make them better without a complex intrusion into a decision from another branch of government ahead of the June 28 primaries for congressional seats.
“Is it a possible remedy to send it back to the [commission that draw draft plans last year]?” asked Judge Rowan Wilson.
“If it’s determined that there was a gerrymander, does it go back to the Legislature?” asked Judge Madeline Singas.
There’s also the possibility that the courts simply draw the lines themselves. But it would still need to be determined whether those would come from a process that started by a lower court in the Corning area earlier this month or whether some other mapmaker would be appointed.
Discussions also focused on topics such as whether any changes could apply to this year's elections or if the new maps would stay in place until 2024, and how long the Legislature would have to redraw the maps if they were sent their way.
Democratic attorneys argued that the matter was far too complex to start over without a lot more input from the courts.
Eric Hecker, who represented Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), highlighted the oft-maligned District 11 that is currently held by Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island and was made more Democratic in the new map.
“We have put in the record unrebutted evidence that adjoining District 10 was drawn the way it was in order to reunite Chinese American communities that had become cracked. And as a result, it just so happens that District 11 had the composition of its partisanship change,” Hecker said.
“If this court strikes down … the plan without telling us anything about which districts are infirm and why, what are we supposed to do with District 11 without a specific judicial order? Are we supposed to go back and purposefully re-crack the Chinese American community for the sole purpose of rendering the adjoining Staten Island district more Republican? That would be deeply problematic, and that’s why the courts don’t do that.”
Of the seven judges, Justice Jenny Rivera was most clearly on the Democratic side. She went so far as to suggest that the Legislature had an even easier path to drawing its own lines than Democratic lawyers argued.
Judge Michael Garcia seemed the most skeptical of the Democratic argument. He highlighted a 2021 amendment on redistricting that voters rejected, which Republicans have repeatedly pointed to as evidence that there is a widespread expectation that redistricting would have some distance from the Legislature.
Every judge on the court was nominated by Democratic Govs. Andrew Cuomo or Kathy Hochul, though Garcia is arguably the most Republican: He had previously served in a few high level appointments in George W. Bush’s administration.
“It’s always hard to tell when listening to oral argument how a case is going to come out,” said former Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.), who has helped organize Republican legal efforts on redistricting and watched the arguments from the courtroom. “But I think the issues were fleshed out and I think we have a strong case … Where the court winds up, well, we’ll have to stay tuned.”
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