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New York's high court will decide whether to strike down new congressional district lines

The New York state Senate meets in the Senate Chamber on the opening day of the legislative session at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 8, 2020.
Hans Pennink
Associated Press
The New York state Senate meets in the Senate Chamber on the opening day of the legislative session at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 8, 2020.

The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, heard arguments on whether New York’s new congressional lines are unconstitutionally gerrymandered and have to be redrawn.

The court heard an appeal of two lower court rulings, which had struck down the new lines.

A mid-level appeals court upheld the new state Senate and Assembly district lines.

Republicans, who are in the minority party in state government, brought the lawsuit. They argue that the new districts, which were drawn by Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature, unfairly disadvantage at least four of the state’s eight GOP congressional representatives.

Under the plan, Nicole Malliotakis, the only Republican representing New York City, would see the liberal neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn added to her predominately conservative Staten Island district. Upstate, two GOP congressional representatives were drawn out of their districts altogether, and planned to move to try to retain their seats. On Long Island, a seat being vacated by Lee Zeldin, who is the Republican nominee for governor, was reconfigured to add more Democratic areas.

Misha Tseytlin, arguing for the Republicans, said the Democrats violated the state’s constitution, amended by voters in 2014, which prohibits the drawing of districts to advantage an incumbent or disadvantage challengers and discourage competition.

“They also set up the strongest language prohibiting partisan gerrymandering found in any constitution in the United States,” said Tseytlin, who added the Legislature then “ignored” that process “in the very first redistricting process where this was relevant."

The amendment also authorized a bipartisan redistricting commission, known as the IRC, to have two chances to draw fair maps before the Legislature was permitted to intervene and draw the maps itself. The commission gridlocked along party lines and drew two opposing maps, but never submitted a second set of maps.

Democrats in the Legislature say they drew the lines fairly, and any changes were to correct unfair lines drawn during past decades when Republicans had more sway in redistricting decisions. Attorneys for the legislative leaders argued at the appeal, as did Jeffrey Lang, a lawyer for Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is named in the suit.

"We seriously disagree with the proposition that this was an egregious gerrymander,” Lang said. “We don’t believe it was a gerrymander at all.”

The court is made up of seven judges, all appointed by either Hochul or her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats. The judges peppered both sides with questions, including queries about potential remedies they should order if they find that the maps did violate the constitution.

Tseytlin, representing the Republicans, said the court should appoint a neutral special master.

Attorneys for the Democrats say the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, should be given another chance to redraw the lines.

Judge Michael Garcia asked Hochul’s attorney, Lang, whether a potential compromise could include allowing the Legislature to submit a proposed new map to a special master.

Lang said he believes any new maps drawn should then be reviewed by a lower court judge.

“So we would have to start the whole process from the beginning?” Garcia asked.

Lang said he believes the process would have to start over, and he said with a primary scheduled for June 28, and the petitioning for candidates already concluded, there’s not enough time for that.

“The election has simply proceeded too far down the road,” Lang said.

Judge Jenny Rivera asked whether the argument of a tight election timeline could potentially permit lawmakers to gerrymander in the future, and then say it’s too late to make changes.

“Doesn’t that incentivize what happened here?” Rivera asked. “Especially for those who might want the kind of outcome that they think they find in the lines as they were drawn?”

Lang answered that he doesn’t think that would happen.

The court is expected to issue its ruling within days.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.