New York’s top court orders new House map, but Democratic gains may not be dramatic

New York’s highest court sided with Democrats on Tuesday and ordered the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission to draw a new congressional map to be used in next year’s elections.

The 4-3 ruling by a divided Court of Appeals may eventually lead to Democratic lawmakers drawing new gerrymandered districts, though such an outcome is not guaranteed. The commission will first be given an opportunity to either reach a compromise or, failing that, send dueling proposals to the Democratic-run legislature, with a court-ordered deadline of Feb. 28.

Only if lawmakers reject such maps would they be able to draw their own. Yet even if that comes to pass, it remains to be seen how aggressive a map Democrats would draw given the possibility of further judicial scrutiny. In addition, a 2012 statute prohibits the legislature from making changes to any commission maps that would alter a district’s population by more than 2%, though Democrats could potentially amend or repeal this requirement.

After the 2020 census, the commission failed to agree on a new congressional map, prompting lawmakers to adopt their own plan that favored Democrats. However, the Court of Appeals struck down that map in a 4-3 ruling last year, finding that, because the commission never sent a second map to the legislature, lawmakers lacked the power to draft one themselves.

Instead, a lower court appointed an outside expert to draw a map, which was used last year. Nonetheless, Democrats argued that this map was only meant to be temporary and that the commission was required to reconvene and draw a new map for 2024. A majority of the Court of Appeals agreed.

Critically, the court’s conservative-leaning chief judge who wrote the majority opinion in that 2022 ruling, Janet DiFiore, subsequently resigned and was replaced by an appointee of Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, Caitlin Halligan. Although Halligan recused herself, Judge Dianne Renwick, who sits on an intermediate appellate court, was chosen to take her place for this case.

Renwick subsequently cast the deciding vote in favor of requiring the commission to try a second time in a decision written by Chief Judge Rowan Wilson, who dissented in the previous case. (Wilson, previously an associate judge, was elevated to the position of chief earlier this year; his spot on the bench was filled by Halligan.)

If lawmakers reject the commission’s subsequent proposal, Democrats could then use their two-thirds supermajorities to pass their own map, which could significantly improve their chances in several key races next year. However, such a scenario would likely prompt further litigation.

In particular, Republicans would be likely to once again attack such a map as a partisan gerrymander, a position that met with support in DiFiore’s majority opinion last year. It’s not clear, though, to what extent Wilson’s court might be sympathetic to such claims. The New York Times’s Nicholas Fandos reports that Democrats may be cautious, saying that they “are not expected to try to return to the kind of aggressive gerrymander that was shot down” last year.

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