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Democratic state legislators move to limit ‘judge shopping’ in redistricting challenges

This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.
Hans Pennink
/
Associated Press file photo
This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.

When Democrats in the New York State Legislature approved the new congressional district lines Wednesday, they also OK’d legislation to limit the practice of “judge shopping” when someone wants to file suit in a redistricting challenge.

Republicans, who are in the minority party, say the measure is retribution for their successful suit that resulted in the 2022 congressional lines drawn by Democrats being struck down.

The bill — approved in both houses and signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday evening — limits any future legal challenges to district lines drawn by the legislature in the future to just four counties. They are Albany, Erie, Westchester and New York County, which encompasses Manhattan.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the counties are all seats of the state’s judicial departments and may have more expertise to draw on to hear the cases.

“We just feel that those are the four jurisdictions that are best equipped to handle these types of cases,” Heastie said.

All those counties are dominated by Democrats, including the Supreme Court judges who preside over the courts.

During debate, Republican Assembly Minority Leader Pro Temp Andy Goodell accused Democrats of changing the rules because they lost a major court battle on redistricting in 2022.

“So, this bill says, if you want to stand up for the constitution of the state of New York, you can only do it in four counties. How is that consistent with our oath of office?” Goodell asked. “Are we afraid of allowing the courts to easily consider a constitutional challenge? Are we afraid because the last time they looked at it, they ruled it was unconstitutional?”

Republicans filed a challenge in Steuben County, a rural region dominated by GOP lawmakers and judges. That lawsuit eventually led to the Democratic-drawn lines being thrown out by the state’s highest court for unconstitutional gerrymandering.

The lines were redrawn by a court-appointed special master and are believed to have contributed to Democrats losing four seats to Republicans that year, helping the GOP gain control of the House.

Assembly Sponsor Bill Magnarelli said the change is not about political parties, but rather about streamlining the process. He said the state already imposes those limits on election law challenges.

Magnarelli said it would also prevent anyone from taking advantage by filing a lawsuit where they believe a judge may be more sympathetic to their argument.

“This is a way to curtail shopping for a judge,” Magnarelli said. “Here you wouldn't be able to do that. You go to a certain place, you know where to go, and the administrative law judge would then pick the judge that has to preside over that case.”

GOP Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh said the bill actually does the opposite of that.

“With all due respect, it appears that this bill is doing the shopping for us,” Walsh said. “This bill is choosing those four counties where you're going to be drawing from.”

Republicans and other potential critics of the new lines have not yet said whether they will seek remedies in court. If they do, they will be limited to the four county venues to choose from.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.