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'I think not!': Judge denies attempt to overturn New York congressional maps

IRC Lawsuit WEB

Updated 9/16/22 6:15 p.m

A judge in Albany dismissed a lawsuit Monday that had attempted to order New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw the state’s congressional districts, overturning maps implemented by a separate court earlier this year.

The petitioners who brought the suit are a group of New York voters who argued the Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC, should be ordered by the judge to submit a second round of proposed maps for approval to the state Legislature. The state Constitution stipulates that the IRC submit a second round of maps to the Legislature if its first proposal fails. The Legislature rejected the IRC’s first submission this year, but the panel broke down and failed to submit a second round to the Legislature, ultimately leading lawmakers to draw their own maps which were found unconstitutional by the state’s highest court.

"The people of New York intended for the commission to get two chances to send those maps and that didn't happen,” Aria Branch, an attorney for the petitioners, told the judge during oral arguments in the case Monday.

Elias Law Group, the firm representing the petitioners, does a significant amount of legal work for arms of the Democratic Party. The firm has been paid over $7 million in 2022 for work on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – both major elections arms of the party.

Albany County Supreme Court Judge Peter Lynch heavily questioned Branch on whether he had the authority to intervene with the maps, given that the Constitution provides for courts to fix legal problems in the redistricting process, which had already been done in a case ultimately decided by the state’s highest court earlier this year.

“The question is whether the IRC has the authority to now submit a second redistricting plan corresponding to the 2020 federal census. I think not!” Lynch wrote in his decision, issued only hours after argument in court Monday.

The judge further asserted that allowing courts to order the IRC to redraw maps outside the 10-year redistricting cycle could lead to a precedent where they are frequently challenged and overturned, leading to the same upheaval as was seen in this summer’s split primary election dates.

“The Constitutional mandate that approved redistricting maps be in place for a reasoned period, ten years, is to provide stability in the election process,” Lynch wrote in his decision. “Petitioner’s sought-after relief runs afoul of that intent, for it would provide a path to an annual redistricting process, wreaking havoc on the electoral process.”

Responding to questioning from Lynch earlier in the day, Branch contended that the language of the constitutional provision allowing challenges to redistricting doesn’t specify that such a challenge can’t be brought during the middle of a redistricting cycle.

"There's nothing in the text of that provision that states that it's a single-use provision,” Branch argued. “There's nothing that says a map drawn according to that provision must be in place for the remainder of the decade.”

The motion to dismiss the case was brought by a group of voters, backed by Republicans, who successfully challenged the congressional and state Senate maps earlier this year. Lynch allowed them to intervene in the case. They were also joined in the motion to dismiss by the five IRC commissioners appointed by Republicans.

Also at play in the arguments was the feasibility of the IRC to actually reassemble and come to a consensus on new maps, given that it failed to do so just several months ago. Lynch wrote that he doesn’t believe the panel, as currently situated, is capable of drawing new maps.

“Petitioner fails to account for the record demonstration of the IRC’s inherent inability to reach a consensus on a bipartisan plan,” Lynch wrote. “Put another way, directing the IRC to submit a second plan would be futile!"

Lynch also asked the attorneys for the commissioners on their assessment whether the panel could come to a consensus on maps if it had been charged with drawing new ones, given its previous failure to do so. 

"I think that's a very fair assessment based on how the IRC proceeded to date,” Timothy Hill, a lawyer representing the five Republican-appointed commissioners told Lynch.

The attorney representing three of the five commissioners appointed by Democrats disagreed with the assessment that the commission would be futile and pushed back on the idea that the panel deadlocked, instead asserting that the Republican commissioners refused to meet.

"My clients do not believe that it would be an exercise in futility that the commission is fully staffed, all 10 commissioners are on the commission now,” Jessica Ring Amunson told the judge.* “There are no staffing shortages that would preclude the commission from expeditiously undertaking the redrawing of the second set of the maps."

Amunson also pointed out that when the commission had failed to come to a consensus on maps earlier this year, legislation passed by the Legislature had been in place clarifying the process for drawing maps should the IRC fail. That legislation was invalidated by the Court of Appeals in the same ruling that found the congressional and state Senate maps unconstitutional earlier this year. Amunson argued the lack of that legislation paired with a court order would make it more clear that the commission must come to a consensus.

The question over the commission’s ability to do its job is likely to dominate arguments in a separate proceeding over how to redraw the state Assembly’s district lines in a court in Manhattan later this week. A judge overseeing that process is considering ordering the IRC to redraw the Assembly district lines for 2024.

The Manhattan case was the first in which the Assembly lines were invalidated, though the court chose not to undergo redrawing the districts for the 2022 election cycle so close to primary elections. This means the lawsuit is somewhat different in that the IRC would act as part of the court’s constitutionally prescribed remedy for fixing the map as an independent redistricting expert or “special master” did to redraw the congressional and state Senate districts earlier this year. Regardless, the question of whether the panel can actually come to a consensus on maps remains.

Lawyers for the IRC commissioners must submit briefs to the court by Thursday and will appear in-person for a hearing on Friday.

*This story has been updated to correctly identify the attorney for some of the Democratic-appointed commissioners speaking in court as Jessica Ring Amunson

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.