New York’s highest court ordered the state to redraw its congressional map on Tuesday, delivering a ruling that immediately threw New York’s political landscape into chaos and reopened a process with sweeping national implications.
State Democrats are now widely expected to try to shift anywhere from two to six Republican-held seats, from Long Island to Syracuse, toward their party — a major pre-election intervention in the 2024 fight for the House that could alter a key battleground.
Powered by a new liberal majority, the State Court of Appeals effectively wiped out the highly competitive map that helped Republicans flip four seats and win the House majority. It said the neutral lines, which it had imposed just last year, were meant only to be a temporary fix.
By a four-to-three vote, the court directed the state to restart a mapmaking process that would ultimately return control over the state’s 26 congressional districts to the Democratic-controlled State Legislature. The court had stripped away that power in 2022 after an attempted gerrymander.
Democrats will still have to contend with a state prohibition on partisan gerrymandering and account for potential political blowback. But it would take only slight shifts to drastically improve the party’s chances and threaten Republicans’ narrow majority — now three seats, after the expulsion of George Santos, a New York Republican — in Washington before campaign season ever begins.
Republicans, who opposed a redraw, vowed to challenge any new map they believe violates the gerrymandering ban, raising the specter of another protracted legal battle in just a matter of weeks.
The case in New York was one of the final disputes outstanding across the country in an unusually active round of legal challenges stemming from last year’s decennial redistricting cycle. Based on past voter trends, the outcome now appears likely to give Democrats a slight national advantage over Republicans.
The Supreme Court and other federal judges had already ordered several Republican-led states to redraw maps that had diluted the power of Black voters. The changes could net Democrats two to three seats in the Deep South.
But Tuesday’s ruling could also offset recent Republican redistricting gains in North Carolina, where a new conservative majority on the state Supreme Court cleared the way for an aggressive gerrymander that could net Republicans three to four seats.
The New York dispute dates to early 2022, when nearly every state was redrawing its House districts based on population shifts in the 2020 census.
New York voters had adopted a constitutional amendment empowering a bipartisan commission to do that job for the first time, but the panel deadlocked and failed to finish its work. The Democrat-dominated State Legislature proceeded to adopt its own map. And after Republicans sued, the Court of Appeals found that the Democrats’ plan was an unconstitutional gerrymander and had violated the constitutional amendment.
The court then hired a neutral special master to draft a replacement map. Competing on those lines last November, Republicans flipped four districts to claim 11 of the state’s 26 House seats.
A group of New York voters brought the current suit not long afterward, asking the court to return the mapmaking process to the commission and the State Legislature, ostensibly to give fellow New Yorkers a greater say in the district boundaries.
But the partisan motivation was always clear: The suit was financed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington and argued by Elias Law Group, the national party’s favored firm.
Republicans strongly opposed the effort. They made technical arguments about the timing of the Democrats’ suit and a constitutional provision they argued prohibited redrawing district lines mid-decade. A Republican lawyer stated their objections most clearly in oral arguments last month: Democrats had not learned a lesson, he said, and would undertake “a festival of gerrymandering” if the court let them have another shot at the map.
The Court of Appeals made clear on Tuesday that it was not persuaded by those arguments. It ordered the redistricting commission to promptly reconvene to finish its work, no later than Feb. 28.
The panel, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, could theoretically find common ground on a new map. But the New York Constitution affords the Legislature final authority to accept, reject or modify any commission proposal, and Democrats there are unlikely to adopt any map that does not improve their electoral chances to some degree.
The majority opinion turned largely on technical constitutional questions that differed from the ones before the body in April 2022.
But the sharp turnabout in outcome also coincides with significant changes to the panel since that ruling.
Janet DiFiore, a moderate jurist, retired as chief judge last summer, not long after writing the majority decision chastising the Democratic Legislature. Judge Rowan D. Wilson, her more liberal replacement, dissented in that case and has taken a far more expansive view of the role of the State Legislature in redistricting.
The three judges who dissented from Tuesday’s ruling — Michael J. Garcia, Madeline Singas and Anthony Cannataro — had all joined Judge DiFiore in the majority last time. All seven members of the bench were appointed by Democratic governors.
It could now take several months for New York to adopt new district lines, leaving lawmakers in both parties in limbo. Republicans, though, clearly have more to lose.
They were already defending six districts President Biden won in 2020, including those represented by first-term congressmen Anthony D’Esposito and Nick LaLota on Long Island, Mike Lawler in the Lower Hudson Valley, Marc Molinaro in the Catskills and Brandon Williams around Syracuse.
While Democrats are not expected to try to return to the kind of aggressive gerrymander that was shot down in 2022, it would only take much smaller changes to boundaries in the suburbs of Long Island or along the banks of the Hudson to make several seats far more difficult for Republicans to win in a high-turnout presidential election year.