Redistricting in New York becomes the prerogative of the courts and masters

Basic Government 101 tells us that there are three co-equal branches of government on the federal and state level.  The work and powers of the branches overlap occasionally.  For the most part the branches stay in their own lanes.

Not so, at the moment, in New York State.  The state Court of Appeals has mainly removed the Legislature from the process of the post-census redistricting of congressional and state legislative lines and handed that power, by order of a state Supreme Court Justice in Bath to one person, who was unknown to most everyone until recently.

In 2012, when the two houses of the State Legislature were run by two different parties, the Legislature could not agree on a redistricting plan for congressional districts.  The case wound up in federal court, which appointed a special master to draw the lines.  Some of the districts drawn by the master were heavily one-sided, such as the 26th and the 27th districts in Western New York.

That activity led to lots of discussion and eventually the approval of an amendment to the state constitution that would create a bi-partisan commission to ideally produce districts that both Democrats and Republicans would like.  The Commission laid dormant until the results of the 2020 census were available and the redistricting could begin. 

At that time the Commission was constituted with five Democrats and five Republicans and a pair of co-directors.  They held public hearings and worked on maps.  In December they came up with two versions of the congressional and state legislative districts, one from each party’s delegation.  The Commission failed in its duty to develop one bi-partisan version of the maps.  For anyone who has observed New York politics over the years, that was hardly a shocking development.  The two versions were submitted to the Legislature and rejected in January.  The Commission was unable to produce another bi-partisan version, so by law the process moved to the Legislature.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate subsequently approved congressional and state district maps.  Republicans took the case to a state Supreme Court Justice in Bath.  For some reason the Justice labored over the case for a long time, which left less time for follow-up court or legislative action given the electoral calendar dictated by a June 28th primary.  The Justice did find time to locate a special master who could step in to draw the lines if necessary.

Subsequently the Appellate Court and the state Court of Appeals, both by narrow margins, decided in favor of plaintiffs seeking to overturn the Legislature’s redistricting plan.  The Court of Appeals said that legislative plan was unconstitutional and that the congressional and state Senate districts were drawn in a partisan manner.  This was the first time since 1960 that a state court had overturned legislative redistricting plans.  The courts have traditionally shied away from such legislative matters.

The Court of Appeals decision reported that if the Court decided that the legislative plan was correct and proper, the Court decision would “render the 2014 amendments – touted as an important reform of the redistricting process – functionally meaningless.”  But here’s the point the Court ignored:  the 2014 amendments were “functionally meaningless.”

A Commission set up politically, as the New York Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) was, was basically DOA right from the beginning.  In searching for a perfect solution when there was no such thing to be had the process was doomed to fail.

New York is not unique in creating redistricting commissions to find that elusive perfect solution to a difficult political problem.  Other states have done the same thing, and in many of those states the courts have stepped in after the failure of the perfect process dictated a less than perfect solution.

The New York Court decisions are unquestionably a win for the Republican plaintiffs in this case.  Perhaps there is also a win for the courts in showing that, unlike what we see in decisions emanating from the Republican dominated United States Supreme Court, legal decisions can be made somewhat removed from political considerations.

The bottom line, however, is that there is no perfect redistricting plan that can be developed by either the state Legislature or the IRC.  They both are left to manipulate the census numbers to draw lines that create districts that are more or less equal in population.  The process is simple and complicated at the same time.  It can be simple to put municipalities together in some instances to be part of a district, but it gets complicated when the lines are tweaked repeatedly to meet some objectives, fair or unfair, depending upon who is viewing.

Legal action for redistricting may or may not be done for 2022 in New York. Democrats have filed suit in federal court that could end up confirming that the primaries must proceed as scheduled on June 28th. That could mean letting the legislative-drawn line continue for at least the 2022 elections.

There is also an issue remaining about the petitioning process that the Court of Appeals decision now requires.  It appears that petitions for congressional, Senate, and perhaps Assembly districts that were submitted on a timely basis no longer exist.  That should mean doing the process all over again, but the state Board of Elections says the petition re-dos will only be necessary for congressional and state legislative districts.

What about the petitions filed by candidates for governor and lieutenant governor?  The Election Law provides that there must be at least 15,000 valid signatures statewide, with at least some of the signatures distributed so that there are at least 100 valid signatures from 13 of the state’s 26 congressional districts.  But what congressional districts are being used to meet that metric?

So, we are left to wait until Jonathan Cervas, the “special master,” tells us where the lines will be drawn.  Will his congressional districts get set up north-south geographically upstate, rather than east-west?  How will he decide to divide up municipalities?  How will he determine what is fair racially and ethnically, or will that even matter?  Only Cervas knows, and he is not telling us.

The state’s redistricting process is flawed by its very political nature, and no bi-partisan redistricting commission, even one carrying the name “Independent” can make it any better.  For the second redistricting cycle we now have a single unelected “master” deciding how the lines are drawn.  It’s time to stop the nonsense and amend the constitution again to remove the IRC.

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