The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York judge strikes down Democratic-drawn maps

People enjoy the sunny weather and a view of the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn waterfront on March 21, 2021, in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

A New York judge on Thursday struck down the state’s new congressional and legislative maps as defying a voter-backed constitutional amendment that aimed to end partisan gerrymandering, dealing a blow to Democrats hoping to hold onto their fragile majority in the House this November.

State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister in Steuben County ordered the state legislature to draw bipartisan maps by April 11 or the court will appoint an independent map drawer to do it. The state will appeal the decision, triggering an automatic stay until the state appeals court takes it up.

New York Democrats drew a new congressional map with boundaries that could gain their party as many as three new seats, a crucial advantage at a time when the House majority will come down to just a handful of wins.

How redistricting is shaping the 2022 U.S. House map

The judge’s order was the latest redistricting disappointment Democrats have faced in recent weeks after what had been several initial legal wins. A Maryland judge invalidated a Democratic-drawn congressional map, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Wisconsin court-approved legislative maps that added a new majority-Black district, and an Ohio map that heavily favored Republicans, thrown out by the state Supreme Court, is now expected to remain in place for 2022.

The New York congressional map ruled unconstitutional by the state judge would give Democrats 22 seats to four Republican ones. The New York delegation is composed of 19 Democratic seats to eight seats for Republicans. The state lost a seat because of slow growth over the past 10 years.

Democrats, who had full control of New York state government for the first time in a century, argued they were using their power to right wrongs in previous maps. But Republicans decried it as a partisan gerrymander that ran afoul of voters’ wishes to take raw politics out of redistricting.

In 2014, New York voters approved a constitutional amendment to set up a separate entity outside the state legislature to control redistricting. The 10-member commission was split equally along partisan lines. Of the members, eight were appointed by partisan legislative leaders.

The commission was supposed to present a single map to the legislature that state lawmakers could adopt or reject. But beset with its own partisan infighting, the commission did not come up with a unified map, instead submitting two sets of lines, one drawn by the Democrats on the panel and another drawn by the Republicans. The commission’s drama effectively allowed state lawmakers to dismiss its work and create their own map.

“The scourge of gerrymandering is not unique to New York,” McAllister, a Republican, wrote. “In 2014, New York State took major steps to avoid being plagued by gerrymandering. … The 2020 census was the first time after the constitutional amendment that led New York to draw new districts. Therefore, this is a case of first impression in many respects.”

Democrats involved in the redistricting effort said that Republicans purposely took the case to a rural, conservative judge and that the outcome would ultimately be decided by a higher court, where they will fight for the maps to stand.

“This is one step in the process,” said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for New York state Senate Democrats. “We always knew this case would be decided by the appellate courts. We are appealing this decision and expect this decision will be stayed as the appeal process proceeds.”

Republicans cheered the lower-court decision, calling it a win for New York voters who wanted a less-partisan redistricting process. Democrats have made similar arguments in GOP-held states that also passed anti-gerrymandering ballot initiatives, such as Ohio.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a co-chairman of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, brushed aside a question about the similarity in circumstances between the two states.

“It’s very difficult to compare state to state in this,” he said during a call with reporters. “What we do see, though, is those who have looked at the New York map, independent experts and those like me involved in the political process, have stated right from the beginning that of all 50 states that have engaged in redistricting, this was by far the worst gerrymandering in the country.”