New York's congressional lines may be ultimately decided by court

PHOTO: Karen DeWitt, ALBANY

The legislature’s newly drawn state Senate and Assembly  lines, as well as the congressional lines, may be headed toward a federal court appointed special master.

A federal judge has named a three member panel to look at whether the drawing of new congressional and possibly legislative district lines should be taken away from the legislature and put into the hands of a federally appointed special master.

The panel will consider a request by Judge Dora Irazarry, a federal district court judge in Brooklyn, who is hearing a lawsuit against the lines brought by civil rights groups. Judge Irazarry expressed concern that the proposed new congressional lines have not yet been released by a legislative task force, even though another federal court judge has ruled that the congressional primaries must be held on June 26th.

Governor Cuomo says the developments do not come as a surprise.

“This is not the first time we’ve been to this dance,” Cuomo said.

The district lines in 2002 and 1992 also ended up before the federal courts, and the lines were ultimately altered.

Cuomo has said the legislative lines are “unacceptable”, calling them “hyper political and hyper partisan”.  He’s said if they are not changed, he will veto them.  But  Cuomo seems for now, to be willing to let the lawmakers fight their own battles.

“This is primarily up to the legislature,” Cuomo said. “They are in charge of their own destiny here.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says he doesn’t think it’s necessary to have the federal courts step in to draw the congressional lines, he predicts the new districts will be voted into law in a couple of weeks.

“I hope to pass the bill on March 1st,” Skelos said.

The proposed new Senate lines have been condemned by government reform groups for the creation of a  63rd district that is believed to be designed to help the GOP gain an additional seat. Senate Republicans have also pitted six Democratic incumbent Senators in three districts, while not pairing up any GOP incumbents.

But while the Senate Republicans endure criticism for manipulating the legislative lines to help the GOP stay in power, a new poll from Quinnipiac University finds that  a plurality of New Yorkers prefer that the legislature continue to be split between Republicans in the Senate  and Democrats in the Assembly.  Pollster Mickey Carroll says while 31% would like to see the Democrats control both houses, and 21% would like to see the GOP in command, 41% “like the way things are”.

“Although the legislature itself gets punk job approval numbers,” Carroll said.

58% disapprove of the way the legislature is handling its job, the poll finds, just 29% approve.

Carroll points out that gerrymandering is not actually illegal. He says judges always think they “could do a better job than the legislature”, and are more qualified to draw fairer, less partisan lines, but the state’s constitution gives the redistricting authority to the legislature.

The courts can change district lines only if it’s determined they violate the federal voting rights act.

Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders have talked about changing the state’s constitution to create a non partisan process for the 2022 redrawing of the lines, but no agreement has yet been reached.