In 2014, New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly to reform the state’s redistricting process by amending the constitution to require that congressional and state legislative district maps be drawn by a newly established, bipartisan Independent Redistricting Commission or IRC. But last year, the IRC process went badly off the rails.
As a result, New York voters in 2022 wound up with a chaotic primary schedule and an emergency set of congressional and State Senate maps, drawn by a court-appointed special master in a rushed process that sidelined the IRC. Now, however, a state appeals court in Albany has an opportunity to restore the electoral map-drawing function to the IRC and the legislative branch and put the IRC process back on track for the next elections, as the state constitution requires.
In April 2022 in Harkenrider v. Hochul, New York's highest court threw out as unconstitutional the district maps enacted in February by the legislature. With a key 2022 primary election deadline one week away, the court found there was no time for a legislative cure. Instead, it imposed an emergency remedy, upending the state’s primary calendar and ordering a special master to quickly prepare valid maps “for use in the 2022 election.”
Nothing in the decision suggested those maps would stay in place after 2022. The lower court that certified the special master’s maps took care to certify them only as “2022” congressional and State Senate maps, giving them no shelf life beyond the last year's election.
This time limit on the court’s remedy is consistent with Harkenrider's conclusion that the legislature violated the constitution by sidestepping the IRC process in not requiring the IRC to submit a second redistricting plan. The court faulted the legislature for attempting to “render the IRC process inconsequential” by short-circuiting it for partisan advantage. The decision was narrowly tailored to uphold and preserve the integrity of the IRC procedure — not cast it aside.
The constitution requires courts to ensure that the IRC-based process governs to the fullest extent possible. The issue is not whether you like the special master’s maps, or believe that the legislature misbehaved by engaging in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering last year. New Yorkers are entitled to have redistricting conducted under the constitutional procedure they chose — the inclusive and bipartisan IRC process with its extensive statewide public hearings.
The IRC procedure is far from perfect, but cynicism about it is overblown. In 2023, the IRC has already met and prepared a new redistricting plan for the rest of the decade to govern State Assembly elections. Another court directed the IRC to move forward with the Assembly maps, which the legislature approved and Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law in April. The IRC has shown that its members can work together when a court holds their feet to the fire.
To be sure, congressional and State Senate district lines are far more contentious given the political stakes involved. But Harkenrider sent a clear message that the court won’t simply rubber-stamp an unfair redistricting plan if the legislature overreaches again.
The constitution guarantees the legislature a full opportunity to get redistricting right, which means restoring the IRC’s proper role in the process. The legitimacy of New York’s elections depends on the restraint of both the legislature and the courts in checking their temptation to overreach. New Yorkers should continue to demand fair, independent, bipartisan redistricting. The first step in making that happen is for the court to send the IRC back to the drawing board to finish its work.
This guest essay reflects the views of P. Benjamin Duke, co-chair of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and a partner at Covington and Burling.
This guest essay reflects the views of P. Benjamin Duke, co-chair of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council and a partner at Covington and Burling LLP.