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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

State Senate redistricting for math majors

Members of the New York state Assembly hold

Members of the New York state Assembly hold a session at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. (June 14, 2011) Credit: AP

The creative contrivances that produced the latest State Senate district map went on full display Thursday before New York's top court -- and it all came out sounding pretty clever, in a warped, Albany-style way.

At issue during 40 minutes of Court of Appeals arguments was how many Senate districts the state should have under the state constitution. The plan pushed through by Republicans in the majority increased the number from 62 to 63, undoubtedly to the GOP's electoral advantage. Democrats in the minority sued to overturn the change.

The Assembly, says the constitution, gets 150 districts. But in the Senate, the number has evolved over the past century-plus, increasing every so often.

So Thursday's court scrap focused on interpretation of a dizzying formula -- derived from a constitutional section adopted in 1894 -- for adding to a base number of 50 districts.

Back then, believe it or not, Suffolk and Staten Island were deemed a single Senate district, while Nassau was part of Queens. Their growth, and the matter of how counties and districts came to fit into each other, came into play.

That's where the mathematical wrestling takes shape.

Put as simply as possible, there are two ways that the number of additional Senate seats above the basic 50 called for in the constitution have been calculated over the past century-plus.

One method adds the combined populations of Staten Island and Suffolk, divides that total by one-50th of the state population, then rounds the quotient down to the nearest whole number. The same is done for Nassau and Queens, and the two resulting whole numbers are added together.

If that gives you a headache, just know this: The number of seats this year under this method comes out to 64.

By the other method, the population of each of the four counties is first individually divided by a 50th of the state population, and the bottom line, after all the arithmetic, is that you get 62 Senate seats.

But the Senate Republicans clearly wanted not 62 or 64, but 63. So what did they do?

They calculated the required Suffolk-Staten Island number one way -- and the Queens-Nassau number the other.

Eureka! Sixty-three seats.

In his earlier lower-court ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Richard Braun called this manipulation "disturbing" -- but said the Democrats failed to show beyond doubt as required that lawmakers acted outside the constitution.

That left some of the seven-member court's judges Thursday asking whether they should intervene, even if they believe the 63-seat count was set by inconsistent methods and by the most partisan of considerations.

"Where is the crying need to police this?" Judge Robert S. Smith asked Eric Hecker, lawyer for the appellants. Hecker argued that mixing methodologies ran counter to prior case law and amounted to an abuse of the GOP's legal powers.

Smith also asked lawyer Michael Carvin, who was defending the district plan on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), essentially if the methods can be chosen at will. "The discretion here is large" for the legislature, Carvin said.

The high court is expected to issue a ruling next week or the following week.

The judges, and the public, might find advanced nanotechnology or Fermat's Last Theorem easier to unravel. But clever routes to a desired political result aren't always meant to be simple.


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