NYS Redistricting Body Likely Unaffected by Supreme Court Scrutiny

Bill Mahoney informs us in Capital New York that the Arizona congressional redistricting case heard by the Supreme Court is not likely to impact New York’s new commission process. The article is reprinted with permission.

New York redistricting body likely unaffected by Supreme Court scrutiny

By Bill Mahoney| Mar. 6, 2015

ALBANY—While a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the meaning of the word “legislature” might abolish or diminish several states’ redistricting commissions, it appears the one created in New York State last year is safe for now.

The U.S. Constitution vests the legislatures of each state with the power to decide matters related to congressional elections, including the creation of new district lines after each decennial census. In states such as Arizona and California, referendums led to the creation of independent commissions to handle redistricting.

In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Redistricting Commission, legislators challenged the existence of the commission. Their attorneys have argued it blocks the state legislature from performing a duty it is constitutionally obligated to perform.

Supporters say drafters of the Constitution understood “legislature” to mean any lawmaking body, including the people of the state, and did not have specific government bodies in mind.

Most observers, however, doubt their arguments convinced many justices, whose questions indicated that they were skeptical of this line of reasoning. They seemed particularly convinced by an argument that states could not find a way to allow the direct election of senators before the passage of the 17th Amendment, which took that selection out of the hands of state legislatures.

The commission’s lawyers “did not make a convincing case that the legislature could be something other than the legislature itself,” said Jeff Wice, a fellow at SUNY Buffalo Law School and redistricting expert who has worked in New York and California.

While New York does not have a referendum process like that in Arizona, the commission that will likely be active in 2022 was created by a vote of the people through a constitutional amendment that passed last year. This amendment was supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who called for its passage in lieu of his previous demands for an independent mapmaking process in 2012.

The New York commission, however, is technically only advisory, and the state Legislature can overrule it. If either the Assembly or State Senate rejects two sets of maps produced by the panel, they can draw their own. This means the commission is unlikely to be affected by any Supreme Court ruling that would abolish commissions elsewhere.

“The commission, as it’s a red herring for reform, would still be able to draw lines to recommend from the legislature,” Wice said. “It’s different from Arizona or California.”

Former Democratic assemblyman John McEneny, who served as his conference’s representative in the 2012 redistricting process, views the continued involvement of the Legislature as better than proposed alternatives.

“You’re wrestling between conflict of interest and lack of knowledge and a lot of sanctimonious talk from people who really have to understand what a map of New York State looks like,” he said. “We only put in more opportunity for citizens who are less connected and by leaving the Legislature in the end signing off on the final product, then New York is probably OK either way.”

Regardless of whether the commission survives judicial scrutiny, some activists and reformers believe it needs to be changed before the lines are redrawn after the next Census.

“It should be fixed regardless of what the Supreme Court does,” said Mark Favors, the plaintiff in a 2012 suit that resulted in a judicial panel drawing New York’s congressional lines.

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