The congressional map drawn by the Democratic State Legislature violated the State Constitution because it was written to favor Democrats, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court said Thursday in a ruling that threatens to upend this year’s races for House seats in New York.

Upholding a key part of a ruling by a State Supreme Court judge from Steuben County, the appeals court said: “We agree with petitioners and the court that the congressional map was unconstitutional.”

The court said that is because voters amended the State Constitution in 2014 to say: “Districts shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties.”

The 3-2 court decision came as a surprise, given that the court that made the decision, the Fourth Judicial Department of the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, is dominated by Democratic judges. Two Democratic judges were among the three ruling that the congressional remap was unconstitutional.

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However, on separate grounds, the appeals court reinstated the state’s Senate and Assembly lines, which had also been overturned by that Steuben County judge.

NY 2022 races to proceed, but judge can order backup maps

A New York appeals judge has extended a temporary stay on a lower court ruling against the state’s new congressional and legislative district maps. But he also said Friday that an independent court expert could draw up alternative maps in case the disputed lines are ultimately tossed. State Appellate Division Justice Stephen K. Lindley said the state board of elections can still accept petitions filed by candidates running for office, and rule on objections to those petitions. New York’s primary season was potentially upended last week when a Republican trial judge declared that new political district maps heavily favoring Democrats had been drawn up illegally.

The decision is by no means the final word on congressional redistricting in New York. While the Appellate Court gave the State Legislature until April 30 to draw a new congressional map, the legislature is certain to appeal Thursday’s ruling. The state’s top court – the Court of Appeals – could hear the case as soon as next week.

For the time being, though, the ruling calls into question the map that divided the state into 26 congressional districts, some of them oddly shaped. The state previously had 27 districts, but lost a seat because of nationwide population shifts uncovered in the 2020 census.

Political analysts have said the Democrat-drawn map was crafted to ensure that Republicans had only four likely wins in the 2022 House elections: in the Southern Tier district, in the North Country, in a district that stretches from Niagara County to Watertown and in a district on Long Island. The state currently has eight Republican House members.

Republicans who brought the lawsuit argued that after a constitutionally mandated redistricting commission failed to agree on a new district map, Democratic legislators drew up a map that favored their own party.

And on Thursday, the Appellate Division agreed.

Primaries potentially loom in three congressional districts

While primary candidates are challenging all three of the incumbent House members running in those three yet-to-be-finalized districts, the Board of Elections will have to decide if those candidates actually qualify for the ballot.

“The 2022 congressional map was drawn to discourage competition and favor Democrats,” the court concluded.

The judges said they reached their conclusion based in part on expert testimony from election analyst Sean Trende, who concluded that the map shoved Republicans “into a few Republican-leaning districts, while spreading Democratic voters as efficiently as possible.”

Trende developed 5,000 computer-generated potential congressional maps for New York, and “Trende’s simulation reflected that the four most Republican-leaning districts in the enacted congressional map were more Republican-leaning than any of his initial 5,000 simulated maps,” the court said.

“The result is exactly what gerrymandering looks like, i.e., where the voters of the disfavored party are disproportionately ‘packed’ into districts already favoring that party in order to make the districts around them either flip or become less competitive,” the judges added.

The effects of that approach can be seen clearly in Western New York. The Southern Tier’s 23rd district, now represented by Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican, was redrawn to exclude the Democrat-dominated Ithaca area – but expanded to include the heavily Republican towns of southern Erie County and other rural swaths of the state.

Similarly, what’s now the 27th district – represented by Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican – was redrawn into the oddly shaped 24th district, which stretches from the shores of the Niagara River to the shores of the St. Lawrence, with a huge cutout for another Democratic district in Rochester.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, is set to run for re-election in a redrawn 26th district that includes all of the heavily Democratic city of Buffalo.

While ruling that the enacted congressional map is a partisan gerrymander, the court did not adopt the lower-court ruling in full.

State Supreme Court Judge Patrick F. McAllister’s March 31 ruling also held that the State Legislature’s process for adopting new political maps itself was unconstitutional – meaning the redrawn maps for the State Assembly and Senate were unconstitutional, too.

But the appeals court disagreed, saying the State Constitution doesn’t say exactly what should happen if the independent redistricting commission fails to do its job. That means the legislature can take over the redistricting task if it wants to do so, the appellate court said.

So Thursday’s ruling only upends the state’s congressional maps, not those redrawn for the State Assembly and Senate. That came as a disappointment to Gerard Kassar, chairman of the state Conservative Party.

“Governor Kathy Hochul and the Democratic Party clearly drew district lines unconstitutionally to benefit themselves in this November’s congressional elections,” Kassar said. “We wish that today’s decision included State Senate and Assembly lines, which were cynically drawn by the Democrats as well.”

It is unclear whether the court decision – if upheld by the state’s top court – would undo the state’s congressional districts in time for this year’s elections. Candidates have already filed petitions to run in the redrawn districts that the appeals court said are unconstitutional, and the June 28 primary is fast approaching.

“Even though the court struck down the NY congressional map, the map functionally isn’t going to change for 2022 unless someone bites the bullet and moves the primary,” tweeted Michael Li, redistricting and voting rights counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Just not enough time with mail ballots needing to go out by 5/14.”