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The fight over Assembly district lines continues

Kenneth C. Zirkel
Wikimedia Commons

The legal battles over redistricting are still not over in New York State.

While a court-appointed special master resolved the state Senate and congressional lines, arguments continue over who will draw the new New York State Assembly lines after a court ruled that those lines were unconstitutional.

The new State Assembly lines, drawn by the Democratic-led state legislature and approved by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, were struck down by a mid-level appeals court in June. The lines were criticized as unfairly gerrymandered to favor those in power. The court also found that the lines violated the state’s constitution, which was amended in 2014 to prohibit new districts from being drawn to favor incumbents or to put challengers at a disadvantage.

The court found that the legislature did not adhere to a process outlined in the constitution that would have required the state’s redistricting commission to make more attempts to draw the lines.

Because that ruling came just two and a half weeks before a scheduled primary, this year’s assembly races are being held in the districts drawn by the state legislature earlier this year. But there will be new lines drawn for the 2024 elections.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the task should be given to the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission, known as the Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC.

“We feel it’s a suitable place,” Heastie said.

Heastie, along with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Hochul, argues in papers filed with Supreme Court Judge Lawrence Love in Manhattan that the commission should reconvene and draw the new maps.

But the commission, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, deadlocked in January, and came up with two sets of maps. Democrats favored one, and the GOP members backed the other. They could not agree on a single plan, and that’s what led the state legislature to draw the new maps, which have now been rejected in the courts.

Heastie said the commission was established as part of the 2014 constitutional changes agreed to by voters, and he said it should be given another chance.

“This time, hopefully, they’ll want to get to the finish line. I have faith that they’ll work it out this time,” Heastie said.

The state’s Senate and congressional seats were also declared unconstitutional in a separate lawsuit that was ruled on in late April by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. A lower court judge then appointed a special master from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania to draw the lines. Primaries in the newly drawn districts are being held next Tuesday, Aug. 23.

The Assembly Speaker said a special master does not know the state as well as the commission members do. Heastie, who is African American, said for example, the congressional lines drawn by the special master split his own Assembly district into three different congressional districts. He said this weakens the impact of the majority Black population there.

“A special master doesn’t know the communities. They only see what’s on paper,” Heastie said.

Heastie said the members of the redistricting commission are from the state and know its people.

“They have a better idea and understanding of communities of interest,” Heastie said.

If the judge decides that the redistricting commission can be allowed to try to draw the new assembly maps, the legislature could still, under the rules, end up designing the new districts if the commission were to deadlock again.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.