A New York appeals court judge on Friday approved the appointment of a neutral expert to prepare new congressional district lines that could be used if the state’s supreme court upholds a lower court ruling that overturned maps drawn by Democratic lawmakers.
The judge, Judge Stephen K. Lindley of the Fourth Department of Appeals, emphasized in his decision that the substitute maps would only be a backup measure intended to preserve a range of possible remedies while the courts consider a broader legal challenge to the submitted maps. by Republicans. .
But Judge Lindley’s directive raised the specter that an increasingly tangled fight over New York’s newly drawn congressional districts could still veer away from Democrats months after they enacted a map favoring their candidates in 22 of 26 districts. and require the state to delay this year’s primary election. contests from June to August.
The political stakes are high: With the two parties locked in a national battle for control of the House, a swing of a few seats in New York could theoretically make the difference between a Democratic or Republican majority in Washington next year.
So far, only one trial judge, a Republican from rural Steuben County, has weighed in on the case. The judge, Patrick F. McAllister, overturned all of the state’s legislative districts last week in violation of a 2014 state constitutional amendment that prohibited partisan gerrymandering. He ordered lawmakers to redraw the lines with bipartisan support or hand the process over to a special master.
What you should know about redistricting
Democrats have appealed the decision and believe they will prevail in the Appellate Division or the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. They argue that the partisan skew of the maps reflects the makeup of a heavily Democratic state like New York, not an attempt to skew the lines for partisan advantage.
Judge Lindley also foresaw that possibility. Even when he gave Judge McAllister approval to appoint a special master to create “standby” maps, Judge Lindley opted to uphold a stay on most of the lower court’s ruling, allowing the election to proceed with the current district maps for now. .
“The suspension will, among other things, allow candidates for Congress, the state Senate, and Assembly to file nominating petitions before the legal deadline, and allow election boards to accept such petitions,” he wrote.
If the courts ultimately find that the maps are consistent with the State Constitution, the primary would go ahead as planned in June. If the maps are overturned, the courts would have to decide whether to delay the primaries and order replacement maps, or allow this year’s races to proceed as scheduled using Democratic lines and wait until the next election cycle, or schedule a special election. to fix them.
A final decision is expected at the end of April.
Allowing a special master to start working the backup lines now may increase the chances that the courts will pin replacement maps before this year’s election if they rule against Democrats. The court would almost certainly give the Legislature a chance to correct them first.
How US Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It is the redrawing of congressional and state legislative district lines. It occurs every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in the population.
Michael Li, senior adviser to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, called Judge Lindley’s order a “logical step.”
“Too often, map drawing is put on hold and then when a case is decided, there isn’t enough time to redraw the maps,” Mr. Li said. “But that doesn’t mean the situation isn’t complicated for lawmakers and even more so for people running for office.”
A court-appointed special master drew New York’s congressional lines in 2012 during the last redistricting cycle. In that case, a federal court took over because the state Senate and Assembly, then controlled by Republicans and Democrats, respectively, simply couldn’t agree enough to pass House district lines.
Democratic lawyers argued in a hearing Thursday against appointing a special teacher this year before a final decision is reached. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, New York voters supported by national Republican groups, took the opposite position.
On Friday, both sides seemed pleased with Judge Lindley’s decision. Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, would not say whether lawmakers would consider drafting new maps before a final ruling, as Judge Lindley had requested.
“We are pleased that the suspension continues, allowing the election to move forward, and we look forward to being heard on the appeal in the coming weeks,” he said in a statement.