Democrats want court to blow up NY’s congressional map. They hope it helps them retake the House.

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By Dan Sears

New York’s top court will hear an appeal Wednesday in a case that could upend the state’s 26 congressional districts for the second time in a year — and provide a major boost to Democrats as they battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024.

The state Court of Appeals will meet in Buffalo at 1 p.m. to hear arguments over the lawsuit, supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is hoping to toss out the state’s current, court-ordered congressional districts, put in place for last year’s elections.

The local and national implications could be significant: A win by Democrats could bolster their chances of picking up a handful of key seats in New York — on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, in particular — that Republicans won in 2022. And it could counterbalance Republican gains in North Carolina’s map, after that state’s Supreme Court let the legislature redraw districts in the GOP’s favor.

“We’re just following due process and our opportunity to have this litigated in court and decided on the merits,” Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who filed a brief supporting her party’s lawsuit, told reporters last week.

The New York GOP is fighting the lawsuit, arguing that it amounts to a transparent power grab by Democrats still smarting from their significant losses last year. The Republicans have picked up support from the League of Women Voters, a good-government organization that also says the state’s current congressional maps should remain in place.

“This lawsuit symbolizes the Democrats’ willful desire to subvert the courts to their political pressure and to engage in yet another attempt to gerrymander the congressional districts in the state,” said former Hudson Valley Rep. John Faso, who has helped lead the GOP’s redistricting efforts. “It’s as simple as that.”

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Here’s what to know about Wednesday’s big hearing:

Why would Democrats benefit from a new congressional map in New York?

Democrats hate the current New York congressional districts.

A court-appointed mapmaker drew them last year after Republicans successfully won a lawsuit arguing Democrats gerrymandered a previous congressional map to their favor and didn’t follow the state’s proper redistricting protocols.

Gerrymandering is a term used for political maps drawn to benefit a political party, often by packing one party’s reliable voters into a single district or spreading them out across several districts to dilute their impact.

With the court-drawn map in place, eight of New York’s 26 congressional districts were considered to be “competitive,” meaning Donald Trump or Joe Biden won the district with less than 55% of the vote in the 2020 election. Republicans picked up those seats in last year’s elections — helping them pick up a net gain of three seats in New York and propelling them to a narrow House majority.

Democrats are making the bet that a new congressional district map would be more beneficial to them than the current map.

“Each district matters as we look at control of the House of Representatives,” said Jeff Wice, a New York Law School professor who has worked on redistricting issues for decades. “So if the Democrats see a gain of one or two or three districts in New York that helps add up to the national goal of winning back four or five districts [nationally] in next year’s elections, that will determine who controls the House.”

How were the current congressional lines put into place?

In 2014, state voters approved a new process for redrawing New York’s congressional districts, which happens once a decade to account for new U.S. Census figures. It created the state Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC, a panel of 10 members — equally split among Democratic and Republican appointees — tasked with drawing new state and federal districts.

In theory, the IRC was supposed to draw the map and the state Legislature was supposed to vote on it. If the Legislature rejected two sets of maps from the commission, it could have stepped in to draw its own districts.

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But that process imploded last year. The IRC deadlocked and never sent a second set of maps, and the constitution was vague about what was supposed to happen next. So the Democrat-led Legislature stepped in and drew the map — and it skewed heavily in Democrats’ favor, with 22 of 26 districts favoring the party and just three considered competitive.

Republicans sued and got the map overturned, with the Court of Appeals ordering a new set of districts drawn by an independent, court-appointed mapmaker.

The districts were drawn by Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He was selected by a Republican judge in rural Steuben County, which is where Republicans initially filed their lawsuit last year.

What is the Democrats’ argument for getting a new map?

They’re arguing that the New York constitution requires the IRC to get another crack at drawing the maps.

Now, the Democrat-backed lawsuit argues that the current map should just be a placeholder. Instead, it says the IRC should still be required to send another proposal to the Legislature — and, if it’s turned down, then the Legislature should be allowed to step in and draw a new map.

“The lines could end up exactly the same,” Hochul said last week. “They could become more favorable for one party. They could be less favorable. I will not weigh in on that. But I’m going to always make sure that the process is properly followed here in the state of New York.”

The League of Women Voters says that’s preposterous. If the courts wanted the current map to be a placeholder — rather than remain in place for the next decade — surely they would have said so when they ruled last year, the organization argued in a court brief.

“The court did no such thing,” reads the League’s brief, written by James McGuire, a private attorney who was former counsel to GOP Gov. George Pataki.

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Who’s going to decide the case?

The state Court of Appeals, a seven-judge panel, will ultimately decide the case. A mid-level appeals court sided with Democrats, after a lower-court judge sided with Republicans.

All seven Court of Appeals judges were appointed by Democratic governors — either Hochul or Andrew Cuomo.

Six of the seven judges were part of the ruling last year that overturned the Democrat-drawn lines, paving the way for the court-drawn map Democrats are now trying to overturn. Those judges split 3-3 on the ruling.

The seventh judge, newly appointed Caitlin Halligan, was thought to be a swing vote on the latest redistricting case, but she has since recused herself, citing personal ties to an attorney involved in the case. (Halligan has not signaled which attorney she has ties to.)

Instead, Dianne Renwick, presiding justice of the state Appellate Division’s First Department, will act as the seventh judge in the case. She was part of a panel of judges that required the IRC to redraw state Assembly district lines last year in a similar but separate case.

The Court of Appeals will hear the case in Buffalo — rather than its traditional home of Albany — as part of its once-a-year field trip to other parts of the state.

It’s not clear when the court may issue a decision, but Republicans and Democrats alike are hoping it’s soon since candidates have already begun campaigning for the June congressional primaries.

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