How N.Y. Democrats Lost a Critical Redistricting Battle

It was 2020, more than a year before New York began its once-in-a-decade redistricting process, when Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, foresaw a problem.

New York voters had empowered a bipartisan commission to guide the task of drafting new legislative maps for the House and local state districts. But Mr. Heastie worried that constitutional language behind the new process would give incentive to Republicans to undermine the commission, according to two Democrats familiar with the discussions.

If the commission failed to complete its work, Republicans could try to push the mapmaking process directly to the courts, rather than the Democrat-dominated Legislature.

With a handful of crucial House and State Senate seats hanging in the balance, that outcome could have been disastrous for Democrats. They drafted a constitutional amendment to head off Republicans, but voters soundly rejected it last November. Lawmakers then tried another workaround, passing a bill authorizing the Legislature to act if the commission failed to complete its work.

Mr. Heastie’s fears came to pass in January, when Republican commissioners refused to approve a final recommendation to the Legislature.

But rather than defer to the courts, Democratic leaders decided to make a bet: They disregarded the commission’s work, unilaterally approved maps that positioned their party to pick up key House seats, and hoped that their legal change would withstand scrutiny.

On Wednesday, the Democrats’ maneuver imploded.

In a sharply worded decision, the New York State Court of Appeals said that the Legislature’s actions violated the State Constitution, accusing Democratic leaders of placing partisan interests above the will of the voters who, in 2014, created the commission and outlawed partisan gerrymandering.

A majority of the seven-judge panel — all appointed by Democrats — explicitly found fault with Mr. Heastie’s attempted procedural fix, ruled that the congressional maps had been “drawn with impermissible partisan purpose,” and empowered a court-appointed special master to redraft the congressional and State Senate lines.

The ruling threw New York politics into chaos and scrambled the national fight for control of the House of Representatives this fall.

Any Democrat in New York today who you get on the phone and tells you anything other than this was an unmitigated disaster, is just not telling you the truth,” said Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who helps lead the Republicans’ national redistricting effort.

Democrats had been counting on the new maps in New York to provide as many as three new House seats, offsetting expected Republican gains through redistricting in other states.

The final outcome of the 2022 battlefield may still depend on whether Florida courts strike down Republicans’ new map there as a gerrymander. But for now, Republicans appears poised to best the Democrats nationally for the second consecutive redistricting cycle, making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to hold onto their slim House majority.

The situation in New York was even more tenuous. Not only will it take a court-appointed special master weeks to draw new lines — significantly scrambling contests that have already been going on for months — but election lawyers said on Thursday that they were not certain how the state could even comply with the order and other election-related requirements.

For instance, while it at first appeared that primaries for statewide offices like governor and lieutenant governor had not been affected by the ruling, those contests may be called into question, after all. To qualify for the ballot, the State Board of Elections requires candidates for statewide office to collect petitions from voters in multiple congressional districts. No one could immediately say whether those petitions, filed weeks ago, were now invalid.

“Boy, that could really upend the elections much more than I originally thought,” said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a Democratic elections lawyer who wrote a leading textbook on New York election law, as he puzzled through the ruling Thursday morning.

Mr. Goldfeder and other Democrats strenuously disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ decision, the first time in half a century that the judges have struck down a map approved by lawmakers. They called it judicial overreach and heaped blame back on Republicans, who they say intentionally sabotaged the commission’s work in hopes of achieving the outcome they ultimately won in court.

“It would have been impossible for us to actually meet the threshold laid out by the Court of Appeals because the Republicans refused to come to a meeting to vote,” said David Imamura, the Democratic appointee who chaired the redistricting commission.

He called the current system “unworkable” and warned that the Court of Appeals decision, while attempting to vindicate the will of the voters, would actually ensure that one party or the other always has a political incentive to deprive the Legislature of the ability to draw lines.

Jack Martins, Mr. Imamura’s Republican counterpart, did not return requests for comment.

In reality, both parties entered this year’s redistricting cycle knowing that the commission was legally untested and had serious flaws that made it different from those that have worked in other states.

Created out of a compromise between former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republicans who controlled the Senate at the time, the panel consisted of even numbers of Democratic and Republican appointees. It lacked clear incentives to compromise, and its work could always be overruled by the Legislature if lawmakers rejected two consecutive proposals by the body.

But voters, sick of years of political mapmaking in New York, enthusiastically enshrined it in the State Constitution alongside language outlawing partisan gerrymandering.

For a time, the commission appeared to be working. That changed late last year, when the members began to draft final congressional, State Senate and Assembly maps. Rather than sending the Legislature one set of maps to consider in January, the commission sent competing partisan maps .

When those maps were rejected, the commission simply collapsed without submitting a second proposal required by the State Constitution, eventually laying the groundwork for the Republicans to sue.

Democratic lawmakers insist that after the commission failed, they proceeded in good faith, acting on what courts in New York have long recognized as the authority of the representative branch of government to draw maps.

“They didn’t do their job, and it’s not like we were supposed to wait around past the deadlines if they’re not doing their job and go, ‘Well, maybe somebody else will come up with something,’” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a high-ranking Democrat from Manhattan.

“So we took the initiative that the language of the constitution we believe gave us,” she added. “And we drew maps.”

In any case, lawmakers and their lawyers believed that if a court were to find problems with the maps, they would allow the Legislature an opportunity to fix them, as has been standard practice in states across the country. The Court of Appeals did not, and in its majority decision, the panel said that lawmakers could have asked a court to force the commission to act, replaced uncooperative members or otherwise applied political pressure.

One senior New York Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss the pending case, complained that the court’s ruling would now deprive the state’s representatives, led by two Black leaders, a chance to draw the lines, in favor of a single special master overseen by a conservative judge in rural Steuben County.

Still, Democrats never fully removed the veil of partisanship from the process. When Gov. Kathy Hochul was asked by New York Times reporters last August if she would use the redistricting process to help her party expand the House majority, she answered “Yes.”

In February, the Legislature drew maps without Republican help or a single public hearing. Independent redistricting analysts wasted little time labeling the congressional map a gerrymander, noting that it would likely give Democrats 22 of 26 House seats, up from 19 today.

Rank-and-file Democrats went along. But , multiple Senate Democrats on Thursday privately wondered whether they had gone too far in shifting congressional lines to the benefit of their party.

Others blamed Mr. Cuomo for agreeing to a flawed commission structure with Republicans, and appointing judges to the high court that they believe were too conservative. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who wrote the majority opinion, was once a Republican; Michael J. Garcia, who joined her, represented Senate Republicans while in private practice.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, called the charges “absurd” and defended the 2014 reforms as a “national model.” He added: “If they want to blame someone for violating the process and drawing unconstitutional districts, there are plenty of mirrors in this town,” he said.

Republicans placed most of the blame on current Democratic leaders in Albany who they said flew too close to the sun.

“Despite a clear directive from the voters of New York, Albany’s ruling class decided to put their political survival ahead of the will of the people,” said Rob Ortt, the Republican Senate leader.

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.

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