The New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.

The New York State Court of Appeals in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

Control of the House of Representatives in 2024 may well rest on a ruling by New York's top court, as state redistricting challenges are being used by both Republicans and Democrats nationwide to get an edge in the fight to win the few seats that will determine the majority. The stakes are just as high for the reputation of the Court of Appeals. 

On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments on whether the state's Independent Redistricting Commission, and ultimately the State Legislature, will be empowered to draw new House maps for next year's contest, maps that would stay in place until the 2030 Census dictates another look at the boundaries. Democrats bungled the 2020 redistricting when their gerrymandered maps were deemed unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals, clearing the way for an independent expert to draw more competitive districts. That led to unexpected GOP wins in New York including two seats on Long Island key to the GOP winning a knife's-edge House majority.

Not even two months after their humiliating loss, state and national Democrats were maneuvering to get a do-over, arguing that the 2022 ruling created only temporary districts. This extraordinary series of events started with progressives in the State Legislature distorting the record of Hector LaSalle of Brentwood, Gov. Kathy Hochul's nominee for the newly open chief judge seat. Progressives instead pressured Hochul to appoint Associate Justice Rowan Wilson, perceived as more aligned with the party's goal. Hochul then took the unusual and legally dubious step of pairing the nomination of the progressive Wilson with that of his replacement on the seven-member court, Caitlin Halligan, a prominent Democratic lawyer seen as more of a moderate.

But then Halligan surprisingly recused herself from the redistricting case with the flimsiest of explanations considering she had already been ruling on motions in the case. Meanwhile, Wilson set up a new system that radically changed existing court protocols on what to do when the court needed a seventh judge so he could tap an ally, Dianne Renwick, the newly appointed presiding judge of the intermediate appeals court in Manhattan, to fill in for Halligan.

The situation is as ugly as it seems and the court now finds itself in a precarious spot if it were to order new maps. While this challenge to the maps revolves around different legal issues than the original case, ordering new boundaries to be redrawn in a hasty process ultimately controlled by Democrats would undercut the court's legitimacy. Such a dramatic result, throwing another election cycle into chaos, mandates that Wilson produce a unanimous ruling explaining why the court refuses to honor the most fundamental principle of jurisprudence — that judges honor precedent, the settled law of prior cases. Anything less would be contemptuous of an institution they took an oath to protect and would stain the judges as unreliable guardians of the state's constitution. 

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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