Federal Judge Dashes Democrats’ Hopes for N.Y. District Maps

A federal judge in Albany on Tuesday authorized New York to push back its congressional primary until August, a delay that will give more time for a neutral expert to draw new congressional maps for this year’s midterm contest.

The scheduling change all but kills a last-ditch effort by national Democrats to preserve district lines that would have helped them maintain control of the House but were declared unconstitutional in a series of court decisions.

Democrats had pinned faint hopes on a decade-old federal court order that fixed the primary date in June to protect the rights of Americans casting ballots from overseas. But Judge Gary L. Sharpe of the Northern District of New York said that he saw no reason to keep that date.

“It is clear that a modification of the court’s prior injunction order is sensible and necessary to avoid a chaotic situation for all New York voters — overseas or not,” he wrote.

The order was the latest — and possibly the final — twist in a high-stakes legal dispute over New York’s congressional maps that has raged for two months in state and federal court, leaving the campaign season in chaos.

The State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled in late April that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when they adopted the new congressional and State Senate district lines earlier this year. The judges also found that the congressional map was an impermissible partisan gerrymander, and ordered a court-appointed special master to redraft both sets of maps.

The trial court judge overseeing the case, Patrick F. McAllister, subsequently delayed the congressional and State Senate contests until August to allow time to implement the new maps. (The primary for governor and other statewide offices will remain in June.)

With the state courts set against them, national Democrats tried their luck with the federal courts last week, asking judges to intervene in the dispute on technical grounds to insist that the state hold its primary in June on the same Democrat-friendly maps struck down by the state courts.

In a preliminary hearing on the matter last week, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York denied the Democrats’ request for a temporary restraining order and sharply criticized their legal arguments.

“Let’s be frank,” Judge Kaplan said. “This is a Hail Mary pass, the object of which is to take a long-shot try at having the New York primaries conducted on district lines that the state says is unconstitutional.”

Citing his father, a Ukrainian refugee, the judge warned that agreeing with the Democrats’ arguments “impinges, to some degree, on the public perception” of free elections and respect for the courts.

Democrats could still try to contest the decision in a federal appeals court, but legal analysts said that the chances of success were slim. Those judges would be hesitant to second guess Judges Sharpe and Kaplan, particularly when the New York State Board of Elections and the Justice Department in Washington do not oppose moving the date of the primary.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which financed the lawsuit, accused the Board of Elections of “openly undermining the voting rights of New Yorkers living abroad and service men and women serving overseas.” The spokesman, Chris Hayden, did not say whether Democrats intended to appeal.

The bipartisan elections board has said that, contrary to what Democrats have argued, the later primary date will leave it plenty of time to adhere to federal laws protecting oversees voters.

Republicans, for their part, were quick to celebrate another Democratic defeat and point out that their arguments had failed before five different state and federal judges.

The Democrat-drawn congressional map rejected by the courts would have given the party a clear advantage in 22 of New York’s 26 congressional districts, effectively netting Democrats three seats by packing Republicans in just a few districts. Court-drawn maps are widely expected to produce more competitive districts.

The process to develop new replacement maps is well underway. On Friday, Justice McAllister, of the Steuben County Supreme Court, and Jonathan Cervas, the special master he had appointed to redraw the maps, heard testimony from close to two dozen people about the need to preserve various communities of common interest or geographic boundaries.

Mr. Cervas is expected to present new House and State Senate maps to the court on May 16. But Democrats, led by Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, are pushing for the judge to add additional hearings in New York City so voters of color can offer input.

On Tuesday, Justice McAllister heard separate arguments over whether to also invalidate the State Assembly districts approved by the State Legislature this year.

The Court of Appeals ruling did not apply to Assembly districts because the Republicans who brought the suit had not formally challenged them. Now, multiple parties are trying to intervene in the case to also have the Assembly districts scrapped.

Justice McAllister cast doubt on the prospect during oral arguments on Tuesday, suggesting there wasn’t enough time to replace the Assembly maps so late in an election year and that doing so could be wasted effort since the existing maps had bipartisan support, unlike the congressional and Senate districts.

“I’m not sure this can work,” he said.

The judge was expected to rule on the matter as soon as Tuesday afternoon.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *