Court of Appeals Finds Redistricting Maps Unconstitutional

On April 27, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—issued its decision in Harkenrider v. Hochul, the legal challenge to the 2022 redistricting maps drawn by the New York State Legislature. In a rebuke to the Democrat-led legislature, the court found the maps unconstitutional.

Every 10 years, after the United States census has been taken, New York undergoes a constitutionally-required redistricting process in which its congressional district maps, its State Senate district maps, and its State Assembly district maps are redrawn. Constitutional amendments adopted by New York voters in 2014 transformed the state’s redistricting process in an effort to make the process less partisan. The new process features an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) that is responsible for drafting redistricting maps and submitting them to the legislature. If the legislature fails to approve those maps, the IRC must submit a second set of maps. If the legislature fails to approve the second set of maps, the legislature may prepare and vote on its own maps.

Over the past year, the new redistricting process was used for the first time. Unfortunately, the process broke down. The IRC could not agree on a set of maps to submit to the legislature, so the Democratic commission members and the Republican commission members each submitted a set of maps. Both sets of maps were voted down by the legislature. In January, the IRC notified the legislature that it could not reach agreement on a second set of maps. The legislature quickly proceeded to create its own maps, which—as the Court of Appeals noted—were drawn by Democratic lawmakers without input from Republicans. Those maps were approved without any Republican support, and Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the redistricting legislation into law on February 3, 2022. The new maps were derided in the media as examples of partisan gerrymandering.

Republicans immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the congressional and State Senate redistricting maps. The lawsuit asserted that the maps violated the Constitution because the constitutional process was not followed and because the maps were biased against Republicans. Following rulings by lower courts, the case was heard by the Court of Appeals.

At New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, we were concerned about how the Court of Appeals might rule in this case. Frankly, because all seven judges of the Court of Appeals were appointed by Democratic governors (six by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and one by Gov. Kathy Hochul), we were concerned that the court might be biased in favor of the Democratic Party. However, it is our belief that the court’s decision in this case was both thoughtful and fair.

In a 4-3 decision, the court found the redistricting maps unconstitutional. The court agreed with the Republicans that the Constitution only allows the legislature to draw its own district lines after two sets of maps have been prepared by the IRC and rejected. In addition, the court upheld a lower court ruling that the congressional maps violated a constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering. The court then sent the case back to the trial court with directions to draw its own congressional and State Senate maps with the help of an expert. The State Assembly maps passed by the Legislature were not challenged in this lawsuit and will remain in effect. According to City & State New York, the new maps are due by May 16.

The court’s ruling has both local and national implications. Locally, it likely means that the June primaries in congressional and State Senate races will be postponed to August. It also means that until the lower court draws new maps, congressional and State Senate candidates—along with New York voters—will be in limbo as to the specific contours of their respective districts. As City & State New York noted, “The ruling is [shaking] up just about every Congressional and state Senate campaign in the state. Incumbents whose districts did not change much in the last round of redistricting will now have another stressful wait to see if the new lines leave them with a radically different constituency. Insurgents taking on incumbents may have to change their game plans, or decide if they still want to run at all.” Nationally, the ruling is a setback to Democrats, who were hoping that the Legislature’s redistricting maps would help them gain a few additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If New York’s Democratic lawmakers dislike the outcome of this case, they have no one but themselves to blame. Had they followed the appropriate process and refrained from drawing maps that were nakedly partisan, they (and the rest of us) would not be facing this chaotic situation.