State redistricting experts and officials have a hunch the tension between the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul surrounding the chief judge selection process in recent months is rooted in deeper political motives to help New York Democrats.
Hochul nominated state Court of Appeals Associate Judge Rowan Wilson to be the first Black person to lead the highest court after senators voted to reject her last nominee, Judge Hector LaSalle, citing issues with his past rulings.
"I think a lot of the motivation on redistricting was what was behind the opposition to Judge LaSalle a few months ago," Republican John Faso said Tuesday. "[Senators] raised questions about labor and abortion and things like that, and I think that the opposition to LaSalle had nothing to do with that."
A June 9 hearing is scheduled in Democrats' suit challenging the state's congressional lines in a mid-tier Appellate court.
Republicans gained congressional seats in New York last year, helping to give the GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives last November. Democrats blame a litigious redistricting process and maps drawn last year by a court-appointed special master they argue benefit Republicans.
Three judges on the state Court of Appeals dissented last year in throwing out New York's election district lines drawn by the Legislature for unconstitutional gerrymandering.
Wilson, Hochul's nominee, was one of the three justices to dissent in the ruling, which led to the special master redrawing the state Senate and congressional election districts. If senators approve him, Wilson could be chief judge when the current case makes its way to the state's highest court.
"The Democrats weren't content with the competitive districts — they now want to get a mulligan," Faso said. "...This is clearly just a partisan effort by state and national Democrats to overturn the fair lines that were created by the court master because they rejected the gerrymander the Democrats tried to do."
Representatives with Hochul's office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how Wilson's decision last year to rule against throwing out the Legislature-drawn redistricting maps impacted her decision to nominate the associate judge to be the state's next chief judge.
Gov. Hochul and state Attorney General Letitia James filed an amicus brief in the case to support overturning the maps and giving the state Independent Redistricting Commission a chance to redraw its 26 U.S. House seats to follow a 2014 change to the state Constitution.
Michael Li, senior counsel with the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, disagrees with criticism of the maps and says court-appointed special masters tend to be fair.
"The real problem for Democrats seems to be the fact that they massively underperformed [President] Joe Biden in 2020," Li said. "Even if the special master's maps were to remain in place, there's a good chance that Democrats could win back a lot of those seats. The National Democratic Party has already targeted six seats in New York for pick-ups... So New York is already going to be ground zero for the Democratic efforts to take back the House in 2024 — with or without new maps."
The redistricting commission, meanwhile, is working to finalize new Assembly lines for the 2024 elections.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told reporters Tuesday she expected Gov. Hochul to nominate Wilson to be the state's most powerful justice, but dodged questions about possible political motivations behind the governor's selection.
Those questions, she added, are for the Senate Judiciary Committee's upcoming confirmation hearing. A date has not been set.
"We will set a hearing and those questions, if people have them, will arise," Stewart-Cousins said. "He's obviously been very opinionated, he's very prolific. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of conversations."
Stewart-Cousins says the Legislature will consider changing the state Constitution to eliminate the commission that nominates a slate of candidates for the governor to choose from to fill Court of Appeals vacancies.
The commission helps keep transparency in the judicial nominating process.
"We'll do what we can in order to create the process we like," the Senate leader said.
Faso has not ruled out additional litigation about future decisions surrounding the elective maps, depending on how the case proceeds through the Appellate court and the Court of Appeals.
Legislative leaders have expressed interest in changing the state Constitution and its redistricting process before 2030, but have not specified details of what they support or a timeline. It would take more than two years, with legislation required to pass in two consecutive legislative sessions.