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Analysis

A Win for Fair Voting Maps in New York

It’s the latest case where state courts are protecting the rights of voters from legislators trying to consolidate power for themselves through partisan gerrymandering.

April 28, 2022

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.