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Fight over Assembly district lines continues

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The legal battles over redistricting are still not over. While the state Senate and congressional lines have been resolved by a court-appointed special master, arguments continue over who will draw the new state Assembly lines, after a court ruled that those lines were also unconstitutional.

The new State Assembly lines, drawn by the Democratic-led State Legislature and approved by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, were struck down by a mid-level appeals court in June. The lines were criticized as unfairly gerrymandered to favor those in power. The court also found that the lines violated the state’s constitution, which was amended in 2014 to prohibit new districts from being drawn to favor incumbents or to put challengers at a disadvantage. The court found that the legislature did not adhere to a process outlined in the constitution that would have required the state’s redistricting commission to make more attempts to draw the lines.

Because that ruling came just two and a half weeks before a scheduled primary, this year’s Assembly races are being held in the districts drawn by the State Legislature earlier this year. But there will be new lines drawn for the 2024 elections.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the task should be given to the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission, known as the Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC.

“We feel it’s a suitable place,” Heastie said.

Heastie, along with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Governor Hochul, argue in papers filed with Supreme Court Judge Lawrence Love in Manhattan that the commission should reconvene and draw the new maps.

But the commission, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, deadlocked in January, and came up with two sets of maps. One was favored by Democrats, the other backed by the GOP members. They could not agree on a single plan, and that’s what led the Legislature to draw the new maps, which have now been rejected in the courts.

Heastie says the commission was established as part of the 2014 constitutional changes agreed to by voters, and he says they should be given another chance.

“This time, hopefully they’ll want to get to the finish line,” Heastie said. “I have faith that they’ll work it out this time.”

The state’s Senate and congressional seats were also declared unconstitutional in a separate lawsuit that was ruled on in late April by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. A lower court judge then appointed a special master from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania to draw the lines. Primaries in the newly drawn districts are being held next Tuesday.

The Assembly Speaker said a special master does not know the state as well as the commission members do. Heastie, who is African American, said for example, the congressional lines drawn by the special master split his own Assembly district into three different congressional districts, which he says weakens the impact of the majority Black population there.

“A special master doesn’t know the communities,” said Heastie. They only see what’s on paper”.

Heastie said the members of the redistricting commission are from the state and know its people.

“They have a better idea and understanding of communities of interest,” he said.

If the judge decides that the redistricting commission can be allowed to try to draw the new Assembly maps, the Legislature could still, under the rules, end up designing the new districts, if the commission were to deadlock again.

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.