Some good-government groups are piling the pressure on the state Supreme Court to appoint a special master to redraw voided state Assembly maps after the justice assigned to the case indicated he is leaning toward allowing the Independent Redistricting Commission to give the lines another go.
Late last week, state Supreme Court Justice Laurence Love filed an order calling members of the Independent Redistricting Commission to appear for questioning in the Manhattan court at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 16, giving a nod to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and other top officials' request.
The state Appellate Court voided the original lines June 10 to be used in the 2024 election, deeming the lines unconstitutional.
Common Cause New York sent a letter to the judge arguing it would be illegal for the commission to create new maps since the deadline in the state Constitution passed Feb. 28.
"We want the court to know that from a voters' perspective, what they want is the ability to have input and predictability and not to watch our government's dysfunction repeat over and over," Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said Monday.
The group also argues it would be illegal to refer the task to draw new Assembly districts to the commission, citing recent court decisions, and that the commission will not be able to agree on political lines after failing to reach a consensus this winter. Commission staff have left for other positions since the February deadline.
"We're very concerned to not see a repeat of the frustration that everybody experienced with the failed redistricting commission at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022," Lerner said.
Both Democratic and Republican-appointed members of the Redistricting Commission said earlier this month they stand ready to work together to redraw new Assembly district lines.
Commissioners have maintained they must wait for the court's decision before discussing their plans to be successful this time around.
"The judge wants to hear from them," said Jeffrey Wice, a professor and senior fellow at New York Law School. "What are the pros and cons? Can they or can't they? So until they answer for themselves, he wants to hear from them."
Late this spring, state Supreme Court justice appointed Carnegie Melon University Fellow Jonathan Cervas as special master to draw contingent Senate and congressional maps. The maps drawn by a special master were legally sound, Lerner said, but added New York voters would fare best with a special master with experience and knowledge of the state.
The public must get a fair chance to weigh in on any proposed Assembly districts, she added.
"We believe the court should appoint a master, set up an open process where the master takes input from the public, draws maps, gets comments and gets it right this time," Lerner said.
The judge's most recent motion indicates he is leaning toward deciding in the state's favor, but officials on both sides of the argument are encouraged by the lack of legal precedent.
A spokesman with state Attorney General Letitia James' office declined to comment Monday. Earlier this month, the AG's office filed a letter on Gov. Kathy Hochul's behalf in support of evidence that Heastie filed for the redistricting commission to redraw the Assembly lines.
Another redistricting-related lawsuit continues to move through the state Supreme Court in Albany County challenging commissioners to file a second round of congressional maps to the state Legislature.
On Friday, counsel for more than half of the commissioners asked the judge to dismiss the case because it is inappropriate and untimely. The other commissioners filed an answer to the allegations.
Both cases are expected to work their way through higher courts to determine the role of the commission, Legislature or a potential special master that would shape New York's redistricting process for the future.
"If there's one thing we've learned from the courts this year, it's to expect the unexpected," Wice said.
The chaos and confusion surrounding the state's redistricting process has given rise to discussion about reforming the process before the next U.S. Census in 2030.
Legal analysts like Wice note the ongoing and unprecedented legal challenges are evidence of the holes in the 2014 constitutional amendment New Yorkers voted to adopt to create the Independent Redistricting Commission with 10 politically appointed members.
Common Cause supports redistricting reform for the state and is meeting with other good-government and voting rights advocates to come up with a proposal. Lerner is discussing the potential for a commission that is made up of volunteers rather than political appointees that prevent the process from remaining independent.
"We have a decade to get this right," Lerner said. "We need to build grassroots and voter support ... We're going to have some work to do to really get our elected officials to the point where they set up a system that is in line with voters' expectations."