Law and government experts at St. John’s University and its law school are saying that the release of draft legislative district lines in New York State is only the beginning.
Brian Browne, vice president of government relations at St. John’s and adjunct professor of government and politics, said Senate Republicans, with their slim majority, protected themselves in their redistricting plan, as did Assembly Democrats with their huge majority.
He said the Senate lines could give Gov. Cuomo good reason to stick to his promise to veto districts seen as too politically motivated.
“But I’m not hearing any problems with the Assembly,” he said. “The problem here is with the Senate lines.”
“My view is that the Republicans were not just partisan; they went rogue,” he said. “They went beyond partisan with a tough map, forcing six Democrats into three districts, putting member vs. member.
“What’s important is what it means for New York City and downstate in particular. District density in New York City is far more than it is upstate,” Browne said. “That dilutes the votes in downstate districts if you want to go by ‘one man, one vote.’”
Districts must be drawn so that their populations fall within a certain range. The Senate plan generally has populations at the lower end of the range in upstate districts, and at the higher end in downstate districts where Democrats have the edge.
Browne believes after the mandatory public hearings it will go to court and then a special master.
He said that while Cuomo came out in the media on Friday as calling the lines unacceptable, he was not really specific about where they come up short or whether he would veto the plans.
“He’s really running against the clock,” Browne said, citing the time to have public hearings and negotiations before primary and election season this year.
A U.S. district court judge last week ruled that New York’s congressional primaries will be held June 26. The presidential one will be April 24 and the Senate and Assembly primaries will be on Sept. 11. And does Browne think the timing of the draft’s release was accidental?
“I don’t,” he said.
Should the process wind up in court, St. John’s Law Professor Janai Nelson said all will have to consider the Jan. 20 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Perez v. Perry.
In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that a lower court improperly threw out new districts drawn up the Republican-led Texas Legislature.
The court ruled that a three-judge panel “did not give enough deference to the Legislature’s plans,” said Nelson, who teaches election law and legal ethics.
The Texas lines were opposed by Hispanic and other minority groups.
Unlike New York, Texas also comes under provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require preclearance by a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice of all new voting districts in nine southern states that had histories of voter discrimination.
Nelson said trial judges in the Perez case have been ordered to form interim district lines that will allow Texas elections to proceed while preclearance is sought.
She also said the potential success of any court appeal in New York will depend upon what grounds the new lines are challenged.
“The New York Senate lines will probably be challenged under the Voting Rights Act by minority groups, good government group and others,” Nelson said. “In Perez they have been ordered to form interim lines because while [the Texas Legislature’s] lines have not been precleared, they also have not been ruled illegal.”
Nelson said the two-week public comment period, which began on Jan. 30, will be an important opportunity for opponents of the new New York State lines to make their objections known to the legislative task force.
“They can participate in how our state is reshaped,” Nelson said. “They should take part in the hearing process.”