Judges on New York’s high court peppered attorneys with sharp questions Tuesday as they considered whether to throw out new congressional district maps that Republicans charge are unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Court of Appeals judges heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by a group of Republican voters challenging the legality of the new district maps, which critics say were drawn to favor Democrats. The court’s decision — which could come in days — could play a crucial role in the battle for control of the U.S. House, where Democrats now enjoy a thin majority.
Judges repeatedly asked Democratic attorneys about what should happen next if the high court decides to strike down the maps. But they also seemed wary about overstepping their authority.
“I’m again having difficulty with your argument that you’re driving the substantive work of drawing district lines into a judicial forum,” Judge Jenny Rivera told a lawyer for the petitioners.
The suit says the Democrat-controlled Legislature violated provisions in the state constitution that barred the redrawing of districts for partisan gain. New York’s governor and legislative leaders deny that they bent the rules, but two lower courts have already ruled that the district maps were drafted specifically to give Democrats an advantage.
A midlevel appeals court last week gave the Legislature a deadline of April 30 to come up with revised maps, or else leave the redrafting in the hands of a court-appointed expert.
A third ruling against the maps could potentially upend the state’s planned congressional primary, now scheduled for late June.
Political district maps across the nation have been redrawn in recent months as a result of population shifts documented in the 2020 Census.
Democrats had been counting on New York lawmakers producing a map heavily favorable to their party to help offset expected Republican gains in other states.
New York’s new maps would give Democrats a strong majority of registered voters in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts. Republicans, who represent about 22% of registered New York voters, currently hold eight of the state’s 27 seats in Congress. New York will lose one seat in 2021.
Partisan gerrymandering of political district maps is an age-old tradition in the U.S., but New York voters attempted to limit the practice through a constitutional amendment in 2014.
The new maps were initially supposed to have been drawn by an independent commission, but that body, made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, couldn’t reach consensus, allowing the Legislature to step in.
So far this election cycle, courts have intervened to block maps they found to be Republican gerrymanders in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. Such decisions have led to delayed primaries in North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland.
Associated Press writer Michael Hill contributed.