BATH, N.Y. -- A group of New Yorkers are claiming newly drawn district lines for the state Senate and Congress are unconstitutional.
Attorneys for those petitioners made their opening arguments Thursday before state Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister in Steuben County. They are making two key arguments.
First, they said the process was flawed because they claimed the courts, not the Legislature, should have taken control when the Independent Redistricting Commission failed to agree on new maps. Second, the suit argued the maps themselves were unconstitutional because they were drawn with partisan interest in mind, also known as gerrymandering.
"It's very clear for any observer to look at these lines and realize they packed every Republican they could find into four congressional districts in the state, thereby making all the adjacent districts more inclined to elect a Democrat," argued former Republican Rep. John Faso, an advisor to the petitioners.
McAllister made several key rulings in favor of the petitioners, including denying the governor and lieutenant governor be dismissed as respondents, allowing the suit to be amended to include the state Senate map and allowing the petitioners to seek limited discovery evidence about gerrymandering from lawmakers despite the respondents' contention those legislators have absolute privilege when it comes to legislative actions.
"We're not seeking to get into the legislative process, but we're looking to see what were their intents, what kind of interaction did they have with outside parties such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and determine what was the partisan intent," Faso said.
Attorneys for the respondents, which include the Assembly speaker, the state Senate majority leader and the governor, expect their clients may file an appeal against the discovery ruling, potentially holding up an otherwise expedited proceeding.
"The position that we took in court today is that at the time a notice of appeal is filed, that there would be a stay with respect to the discovery. There are opportunities under the law for the petitioners to take a different position but that's up to their strategy," said Phillips Lytle attorney Craig Bucki, who represents the Assembly speaker.
Unless an appeal leads to an automatic stay, the discovery needs to be completed by March 12, and McAllister, regardless, plans to hear from expert witnesses two days later.
"The judge clearly wants to hear some testimony and we certainly respect the judge's ruling and we'll be ready for the testimony come March 14," Bucki said.
The judge however did deny a motion to put a stay on election proceedings pending his decision, noting the heavy burden of proof petitioners will need to meet and suggesting even if he rules with them, it's unlikely new lines could be drawn soon enough to elect lawmakers this year. Faso hopes McAllister may reconsider after the next hearing.
"I believe that the lines could be changed this year for this November's election in plenty of time for the June 28 primary but the unconstitutional state Senate and U.S. congressional lines should not be allowed to stand," he said.
McAllister said he believes it would be more prudent to order a re-election next year if the petitioners win. So far there have been no statements from the Assembly, state Senate or the governor's office.