Judges on New York’s highest court peppered attorneys with sharp questions Tuesday as they considered whether to throw out new congressional district maps that Republicans say were unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
The Court of Appeals heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by a group of Republican voters challenging the legality of the new district maps, which were widely seen as likely to help Democrats gain seats in Congress and knock some incumbent Republicans out of office.
The court's decision — which could come at any time — could play a crucial role in the battle for control of the U.S. House, where Democrats now enjoy a thin majority.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
Judges repeatedly asked the Democrats' attorneys about what should happen next if the high court decides to strike down the maps. But they also seemed wary about overstepping their authority.
“I’m again having difficulty with your argument that you’re driving the substantive work of drawing district lines into a judicial forum,” Judge Jenny Rivera told a lawyer for the petitioners.
The voters contend in their lawsuit the Democrat-controlled Legislature violated provisions in the state constitution that barred the redrawing of districts for partisan gain. New York's governor and legislative leaders deny they bent the rules, but two lower courts have already ruled the district maps were drafted specifically to give Democrats an advantage.
A midlevel appeals court last week gave the Legislature a deadline of April 30 to come up with revised maps, or else leave the redrafting in the hands of a court-appointed expert. A third ruling against the maps could potentially upend the state’s planned congressional primary, now scheduled for late June.
Attorneys for Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, and legislative leaders from her party say the maps address population shifts and unite similar minority and geographical communities. The attorneys urged the judges to allow lawmakers to fix any errors with particular districts.
The Democrats have also criticized computer simulations run by an elections analyst who testified for the Republican plaintiffs that the maps were gerrymandered.
Political district maps across the nation have been redrawn in recent months as a result of population shifts documented in the 2020 Census.
Democrats had been counting on New York lawmakers producing a map heavily favorable to their party to help offset expected Republican gains in other states.
New York's new maps would give Democrats a strong majority of registered voters in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts. Republicans, who represent about 22% of registered New York voters, currently hold eight of the state’s 27 seats in Congress. New York will lose one seat in 2021.
Partisan gerrymandering of political district maps is an age-old tradition in the U.S., but New York voters attempted to limit the practice through a constitutional amendment in 2014.
A politically appointed commission was supposed to draw the new maps. But that body, comprised of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, couldn't reach consensus. The Democrat-led Legislature then stepped in and passed new maps of its own design.
Among other issues, the Court of Appeals was weighing whether the Legislature had the authority to do so. Some judges on Tuesday questioned whether Democrats followed the spirit of the reforms.
“It seems the people said they believed this would be real reform,” Judge Michael Garcia said. “We would be telling them it wasn’t.”
So far this election cycle, courts have intervened to block maps they found to be Republican gerrymanders in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a Democrat gerrymander in Maryland. Such decisions have led to delayed primaries in North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland.