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Judge rules New York’s district maps unconstitutional, orders Legislature to draw new ones

Redistricting Decision WEB

This story was published in partnership with NYFocus.

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — A judge in Steuben County dealt a blow to Democrats on Thursday, ruling that New York’s congressional maps constituted an unconstitutionally drawn partisan gerrymander.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister ordered the state Legislature to draw new, bipartisan congressional, state Senate and Assembly districts – opening up the potential for delayed primary elections scheduled for June. McAllister gave the Legislature until April 11 to approve new maps that are supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate and Assembly. If the Legislature does not do so, McAllister wrote, then the court will step in and hire a neutral expert to draw the new maps. 

Democrats immediately said they would appeal the ruling, which may stay the judge’s order throwing out the maps, effectively keeping the existing maps in place in the short term.

"The Legislature ignored the work entirely of the independent redistricting commission and then it, behind closed doors, without any Republican input or cooperations, enacted a frankly nationally embarrassing partisan gerrymander," Misha Tseytlin, an attorney for the Republican-backed plaintiffs in the case said in his closing argument Thursday.

McAllister, who was elected to the Steuben County Surrogate’s Court in 2017 on the Republican line, accepted Tseytlin’s argument. In his decision, he accused Democrats in the state Legislature of deliberately violating an amendment to the state constitution, approved by voters in 2014,  which requires district maps to be drawn by the Independent RedistrictingCommission (IRC) and approved with bipartisan support.

“The Legislature is not free to ignore the IRC maps and develop their own,” he wrote.

McAllister acknowledged the degree to which his decision could scramble the election calendar this year. “At this point in time, the candidates have been collecting signatures for over a month to get on the ballot for districts that no longer exist,” he wrote, suggesting that the primary elections, currently scheduled for June, could be delayed until late August. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who represents Gov. Kathy Hochul in the case, announced that she will appeal McAllister’s decision.

“This is one step in the process,” a spokesperson for the State Senate Democratic Majority said in a statement. “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.”

The ruling sides with Republicans' procedural argument that the maps were approved unconstitutionally as well as their substantive claim that the maps themselves were a partisan gerrymander.

McAllister’s ruling represents the first decision based on the new Independent Redistricting Process and provisions barring partisan gerrymandering.

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.