After a nearly three-month redistricting legal battle, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has had the last word, declaring invalid the legislature’s enacted congressional map. In a 4–3 decision written by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the court held that the map, which would have given Democrats an edge in 22 out of 26 districts, violated the state constitution on substantive and procedural grounds introduced by a 2014 constitutional amendment.
As a result, districts will again be redrawn in the coming weeks. This time, a trial court—not the legislature—will control the process, along with the assistance of neutral elections expert Jonathan Cervas, a court-appointed special master. The June 28 primaries, consequently, will likely be delayed to August. Politically, Democrats face a steeper hill to climb, as the national party seeks to retain control of the House of Representatives in November. But the decision’s ramifications will span decades, requiring a mandatory process for future redistricting cycles and offering greater protection against partisan gerrymandering.
The procedural claim at issue dates back to 2014. That year, following a debacle that had left redistricting to a federal court and its appointed academic expert, a majority of state voters approved changes to how redistricting would occur in the future. Article III of the state constitution now forbids drawing lines that discourage competition or that favor incumbents or particular political parties, and it mandates that a bipartisan Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) guide the creation of congressional maps. After holding public hearings and gathering input from across the state, the IRC must submit a redistricting plan to the legislature, which must then vote on it without amendment. If the plan fails to pass or get signed into law, the IRC must submit a second plan within 15 days. If that plan again fails to pass an up-or-down vote or get signed, lawmakers may then offer amendments to the IRC maps as the basis for an ultimate legislative solution.
In actual fact, after deadlocking along partisan lines, the IRC proposed two competing plans in early January, as permitted under the constitution. The legislature rejected both, and 14 days later, the IRC, still in a stalemate, announced that it would not present a second plan. Bypassing Republican input and the IRC’s proposals, Democratic legislators summarily drew and passed a new map that gave them a major advantage over the previous one. Governor Kathy Hochul signed it into law on February 3.
Hours later, Republicans filed suit in upstate Steuben County (a friendly venue). The trial court judge, Patrick McAllister, invalidated the districts on the grounds that they were unconstitutionally gerrymandered for Democrats and failed to abide by Article III’s necessary procedure. On April 21, in a 3–2 decision, a midlevel appellate court upheld the decision only on the basis of partisan gerrymandering, not procedural irregularity. Following a Democratic appeal, the high court quickly agreed to hear the case, and on April 26, it held oral arguments.
The next day, the Court of Appeals declared the legislature’s map unconstitutional on both procedural and substantive grounds. Following the constitution’s plain language, the court noted that the IRC was required to submit two redistricting plans, and that only after both were rejected could the legislature draw and pass a map based on amendments to the commission’s plan. Reinforcing that finding with the 2014 amendment’s context and legislative history, the court majority contended that the “IRC’s fulfillment of its constitutional obligations was unquestionably intended to operate as a necessary precondition to, and limitation on, the legislature’s exercise of its discretion in redistricting.”
The court also concluded that the map was drawn with an “impermissible partisan purpose” to discourage competition. At trial, the Republicans’ expert had demonstrated that the enacted map favored Democratic interests more than did 5,000 computer-generated maps drawn without partisan considerations. The state’s experts contested these conclusions, but “concededly did not take into account the reduction in competitive districts.” The court therefore remitted the case to McAllister’s court, where Cervas is expected to complete his map by the end of May.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court can no longer hear gerrymandering claims, this decision, the first in six decades to throw out the New York legislature’s districts, represents the final say on the matter. Every judge on the Court of Appeals was appointed by a Democratic governor, which demonstrates just how skewed the maps were—and how far Democratic lawmakers overplayed their hand. The decision gives teeth to the 2014 constitutional amendment’s substantive and procedural provisions, and in future redistricting cycles, the IRC will play a central role that even legislative supermajorities will not be able to bypass. It also removes a significant hurdle for the national Republican Party’s efforts to retake the House this November.
Finally, the decision provides real-world evidence that the independent state legislature doctrine—characterized as a “fringe conservative legal theory”—would not exclusively favor Republicans. This idea, which contends that the Election Clause’s grant of redistricting authority to legislatures limits the power of state courts to review enacted maps, has found favor among academics and judges inclined to follow an unambiguous text’s plain meaning. But the state assembly’s lawyers cited the doctrine in their brief, signaling that some Democrats are willing to claim it in order to help them retain power.
Despite a popular constitutional amendment promising greater bipartisanship and fairness, New York’s redistricting is back to where it was a decade ago: being handled by an expert for a court. Next time, though, really may be different.