Battle over NY’s congressional map goes to Court of Appeals, with national implications

Empty poll kiosks await voters, as NY works to figure out the congressional maps.
Empty poll kiosks await voters.
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

The highest court in New York heard arguments Wednesday on whether or not to redraw the state’s congressional map, with the looming decision having wide-ranging implications for the nation’s political future. 

Lawyers representing Democrats and Republicans flocked to the Court of Appeals in Buffalo on Nov. 15 for the initial oral arguments on the matter — with Democrats looking to redraw the boundaries for the state’s 26 congressional districts, and potentially give their party an edge in the 2024 national elections. 

If Democrats have their way, it could potentially swing control of the U.S. House of Representatives — the only lever of elected power in Washington currently controlled by Republicans. 

Wednesday’s arguments marked the latest development in a years-long battle over the Empire State’s congressional map, which were most recently drawn by a court-appointed “special master” after the Court of Appeals struck down maps that had been drawn by the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

The court in that 2022 decision ruled 4-3 that the maps, which were passed in the legislature and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, violated the state’s constitution by unfairly benefiting Democrats. 

As a result, the court took it upon itself to appoint the special master to draw new maps that essentially boosted Republicans, who picked up a net gain of four seats in the ensuing 2022 elections — which played a major role in the Republicans taking over the House of Representatives by a slim majority.

Since then, Republicans have controlled the body, and put Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson into the job of Speaker of the House, after ousting former-Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

Many political observers blame the poor showing from Democrats in New York for costing the party control over the House of Representatives — largely due to the court-drawn maps. 

Now, though, Democrats in New York are eyeing another chance to redraw maps that must pass muster with the court, but still provide a better battlefield for the party heading into 2024. 

They argued on Wednesday that the court-drawn maps, which were put into place just before the November 2022 elections, should not be a long-term fix, and that the maps should be redrawn under the normal procedure for the 2024 election, as well as each subsequent election until the next automatic-redistricting process in 2031.

Democrats won a court victory in that effort last July, when the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court sided with the party, saying the redistricting process should be done over, using normal procedures — which would once again give the Democratic-controlled legislature the final decision-making power over the matter. 

Republicans quickly appealed that decision, sending it to the Court of Appeals, which is the foremost authority in the state’s court system.

While it is the same court that previously tossed out the maps more favorable to Democrats, the makeup of the court is different this time around — as Justice Rowan Wilson replaced Janet DiFiore as the court’s Chief Judge since then.

Wilson is seen as more liberal, and potentially more willing to side with Democrats, than DiFiore was.  

In the arguments on Wednesday, Democratic lawyers argued that voters are being robbed of their constitutional rights to having maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) — which typically handles redistricting, and answers to the state legislature. 

“The goal is to have fair maps that are drawn through a transparent process by a group of New Yorkers who…travel the entire state, as these individuals did 24 public hearings listening to thousands of people so that people actually have a voice,” lawyers for Democrats argued. 

Republicans, however, argued that the IRC missed its chance, and that the court-drawn maps should stay — saying that redistricting should only happen immediately following the once-every-10-year Census report. 

“Mid-decade redistricting is particularly dangerous — because of course, potential gerrymanders know where the incumbents are, know where the close districts are, and know how to take them out,” Republican lawyers said. 

While no decision is expected from the Court of Appeals until sometime in December, strategists with the Democratic Party are already enthusiastic at the prospect of effectively being handing back control over the maps via the state legislature. 

A more competitive map for the Democratic Party could help them pick up as many as six congressional seats — including, potentially, the 3rd Congressional District, which covers eastern Queens and parts of Long Island, currently held by embattled Republican Rep. George Santos

Another Republican who could be in danger of losing if the maps are redrawn, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island, joined a chorus of conservatives lamenting the potential for newly drawn maps. 

“You couldn’t get more fair maps than the ones we had last year, and they should remain that way until 2030,” Malliotakis said in an interview with NY1 on Nov. 15. “There is no legal reason to be changing the maps at this point, other than Democrats are trying to corrupt the process and take back the power to redraw the lines to try and tilt the scale to win more elections next year.”

If the decision goes the way Democrats want, the IRC will need to kick-off the process of redistricting quickly, as they would be required to hold at least 12 public hearings across the state and finalize a map by March 1, 2024.