By Michelle L. Price
A lower-court judge declared New York’s new congressional and legislative district maps unconstitutional Thursday and ordered the legislature to quickly redraw them, a process that could delay the state’s fast-approaching party primaries.
Judge Patrick McAllister said in his surprise ruling that the districts were illegally gerrymandered to benefit Democrats.
The state trial court judge, a Republican, gave lawmakers only until April 11 to try again. If the Democrat-controlled legislature can’t come up with “bipartisanly supported” maps fast the judge said he would hire his own expert to redraw them, at state expense.
Legislative leaders said they would appeal the ruling and expressed confidence that a higher court would let the election proceed with the maps in place.
“This is one step in the process. 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,” said Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate Democrats.
In a joint statement, Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Attorney General Letitia James said they intend to appeal.
The state’s primary elections are scheduled June 28 and candidates have already begun campaigning in the new districts.
McAllister acknowledged in his opinion that trying to redraw the maps now could upend the election cycle. But he proposed that the state could delay its primaries to as late as Aug. 23 without disrupting the general election.
He said the Republicans who challenged the map had proven “beyond a reasonable doubt that the map was enacted with political bias.”
The maps, drafted by lawmakers and approved by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, ensured that Democrats made up a strong majority of registered voters in 22 of the 26 congressional districts the state will have for a decade.
“The enacted congressional map shows virtually zero competitive districts,” McAllister wrote.
Republicans currently hold eight of New York’s 27 seats in Congress.
The judge, who sits in a rural, central New York county in one of the state’s more conservative bastions, acknowledged in his order Thursday that his ruling was unlikely to be the last word on the matter.
An appeal could send the case to a mid-level state appeals court or New York’s Court of Appeals, who could set the judge’s decision aside. All seven members of that high court were appointed by Democrats.
Republicans had argued in a lawsuit that the maps were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Democrats and marginalize GOP voters.
Former GOP U.S. Rep. John Faso, a spokesperson for the plaintiffs, said Democrats “joyfully” violated a prohibition on partisan gerrymandering.
“This is a victory for the people of the state and it’s a victory for competitive and fair elections in New York State,” Faso said.
Legislative and congressional boundaries are being redrawn as part of the once-per-decade redistricting process kicked off by the 2020 Census.
In early March, McAllister said at a hearing that he didn’t think there was enough time to redraw the maps before the June primary. But the judge said he would issue a decision by April 4 about whether to uphold or strike down the maps.
The legal challenge in New York is among a series of disputes over redistricting playing out in states around the country.