Saying that the state Legislature has “hit bottom” when it comes to redistricting, a panel of national legal experts on Tuesday urged Gov. Cuomo to use the threat of a veto to implement long-term change to the way Albany draws its political lines.
The group of experts from across the country, all of whom have studied redistricting in New York, spoke one day after a panel of judges in Brooklyn federal court began taking control of drawing the Congressional lines —which legislators have failed to do as they were supposed to.
“I think what we’ve seen in the current redistricting process, if you can call it a process, is the Legislature having hit bottom,” Richard Briffault, the vice dean of Columbia Law School, said during a conference call hosted by Citizens Union, a good government group, on Tuesday. “I don’t think they’ve ever done such a bad job. It’s not just the lousy lines that were published — they actually haven’t done the job.”
Briffault joined a group of other redistricting experts to call on the governor, who has threatened to veto the proposed Assembly and state Senate lines, to use the mess surrounding the state’s redistricting process to bring about permanent change to the way districts are drawn through a constitutional amendment. They called for the amendment to mandate the state to use an independent commission during redistricting, instead of having the process be led by majority leaders in each chamber, as happens now.
Those joining Briffault included Loyola law School Professor Justin Levitt, former Attorney General Bob Abrams, and George Mason University Professor Michael MacDonald.
If Cuomo vetoes the lines, the matter would go to court —which the panelists said may not have enough time to sufficiently improve the maps, considering the Congressional primary is expected to be held in June and legislative primaries in September.
“A veto is essentially a spanking — it stings, but it’s temporary, and will not ultimately stop the bad behavior when Cuomo is no longer governor,” said Levitt, also the author of the “All About Redistricting” blog. “Indeed, given the breakneck speed of the court process, a veto may be overstated even as temporary relief. The meaningful veto threat, instead, provides leverage to fix the broken system once and for all. It may be one step back, but it’s a more important two steps forward.”
The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, the group overseen by party leaders that drew the state lines and is often referred to as LATFOR, released its proposed maps for Assembly and state Senate districts late last month.
It was also in charge of drawing Congressional lines, but has so far failed to do so. Judge Roanne Mann, a magistrate, is now working as the group’s “special master,” and has set a March 12 deadline for the court to come up with a proposal for Congressional lines to present to the judges. Nathaniel Persily, a redistricting expert at Columbia Law School, is working with Mann to come up with the proposal.
Redistricting happens once every 10 years after the federal Census numbers are published. The idea behind it is to redraw the political coverage areas so they better represent the changing demographics as reported by the Census, though everyone from good government groups to civic leaders and legislators themselves have criticized New York’s process, saying it leads to gerrymandered maps with contorted boundary lines that divide residents of similar backgrounds or interests, to favor incumbents —namely Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly.
“There is a desperate need for permanent structural reform of the political process to achieve independent redistricting,” Abrams said. “Let’s use the governor’s threat of a veto to get a constitutional amendment, along with a similar statute as insurance of its passage, to forever remove the redistricting pen from legislators’ hands.”
In Queens, and throughout the state, civic leaders and legislators have blasted the proposed lines, saying they would divide communities of interest and pit Democrats against Democrats in the borough. The lines remove state Sen. Toby Stavisky’s (D-Whitestone) home from the area she represents, the 16th Senate District, placing it in the 11th Senate District, represented by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), meaning Stavisky would have to run against Avella if the boundaries were adopted.
The proposal would also place state Sen. Michael Gianaris’ (D-Astoria) house in northeast Astoria in state Sen. Jose Peralta’s (D-Jackson Heights) district.
Abrams, who first ran for Assembly in 1965, said the state lines have long been convoluted and drawn by legislators in the metaphorical back room.
“In 1965, as a kid, wet behind the ears, two years out of law school, as a lark I ran for the state Assembly,” Abrams said. “I ran against the Bronx machine. I ran against a 17-year incumbent. I will never forget to my last breath when I looked … and saw my district, I said, ‘Oh my God, look what they did to my district!’ It was made up of pieces of five districts. It had a head, it had a body, it had a tail.”