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Court challenge to NY’s legislative maps will proceed amid gerrymandering claims

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BATH, NY (WSKG) — The effort to throw out New York’s newly drawn legislative maps will continue, after a judge in Steuben County ruled on several procedural aspects to the case for the first time Thursday.

Steuben County Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister shot down several attempts by defense attorneys representing state executive and legislative leaders to derail the challenge. This included two motions to dismiss the case, largely on technical grounds.

The Republican-backed plaintiffs still have a difficult standard to meet in order for the courts to reject the enacted congressional and State Senate maps.

McAllister ruled in favor of the plaintiffs’ request to conduct discovery in the case, which could include limited evidence probes of the governor and state lawmakers involved with the redistricting process.

Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued the court should grant discovery in order to search for evidence amongst legislative leaders and other political players that would suggest they purposefully engineered a situation allowing the Legislature to draw its own maps.

"If in service of that, they communicated with those individuals, they communicated with the [Independent Redistricting Commission], that would be relevant evidence of partisan intent, which is what's illegal,” Tseytlin told the judge.

The defense fired back, arguing discovery was unnecessary and would violate portions of state law exempting legislators and some state employees from handing over evidence.

“They say they've already proved their case, so they don't need this discovery at all,” John Cutie, one of the defense attorneys said addressing the judge. “But even were they allowed to seek discovery, they can't have, your honor, order legislators to answer questions or produce documents about their core legislative functions. You don't have the power to do that under the Constitution.”

Another attorney for the defense said they would likely appeal the decision, ultimately staying discovery temporarily.

McAllister said he would stipulate that all discovery be completed by March 12, just nine days following Thursday’s hearing, in order to keep the case moving on a timeline such that the judge can make a decision by the constitutionally stipulated deadline of April 4.

Petitioners did, at least immediately, fail to convince the court to pause elections processes currently under way. McAllister said he wants to see more evidence on the petitioners claims, and even so believes it's too late to pause 2022 elections.

"Even if I find the maps violated the Constitution and must be redrawn, it is highly unlikely that a new viable map could be drawn and be in place within a few weeks or even a couple of months,” McAllister said. “Therefore, striking these maps would more than likely than not, leave New York state without any duly elected congressional delegates. I believe the more prudent course would appear to be to let the current election process to proceed, and then, if necessary, to require new elections next year if the new maps need to be, need to be drawn,” McAllister said.

The courts cannot reasonably strike down and revert to the old maps because the state lost a seat following the 2020 census.

Both parties will next appear in court on March 14 to hear testimony from expert witnesses on the merits over whether the state’s maps are indeed gerrymandered.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.