The fight over one of the most important battlegrounds in the U.S. Congress will take center stage Wednesday — not in hotly contested suburbs or a campaign convention hall, but in a quiet courtroom in Buffalo.
That’s where Democrats will try to convince the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, to give their party a chance to redraw the state’s congressional map before the 2024 elections.
The case will apparently revolve around conflicting readings of the State Constitution. But the court’s decision in the coming weeks will have much broader political implications.
New York now has one of the most competitive legislative maps in the country, thanks to the court’s intervention last year. If Democrats prevail in the current case, they will most likely try to reassert their dominance with more favorable lines that could help them move up to six Republican seats from Long Island to Syracuse.
Republicans have a narrow five-seat majority in the House. With the number of truly competitive districts declining across the country as both parties implement harsh gerrymandering, the fate of New York’s map could determine which party enters 2024 with an advantage.
“It is very likely that a little-known court in New York is about to determine control of Congress,” said Evan Roth Smith, a Democratic political strategist, expressing the bipartisan anxiety the case is causing in New York and Washington.
So far, court decisions on redistricting since the 2022 midterm elections have mostly been settled nationally. The North Carolina Supreme Court cleared the way for Republicans to adopt an aggressive gerrymander last month that could flip them from three to four seats. Democrats, in turn, could pick up two or three seats across the Deep South, where federal courts have ordered Republican-led states to redraw maps to empower black voters.
The partisan legal battle over New York’s map has been fought almost continuously for two years.
It began in early 2022, when a bipartisan commission created by voters to take politics out of the map-making process stalled and failed to finish its work. Democrats who control the state legislature then tried to intervene with a plan of their own. But after Republicans sued, the Court of Appeals struck down the Democrats’ plan as unconstitutional gerrymandering.
Ultimately, the court enlisted a neutral expert to craft the replacement that helped Republicans flip four districts last November and claim 11 of the state’s 26 House seats.
In the case before the Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Democrats plan to argue that the 2022 map was only a temporary solution imposed on a tight deadline. Their lawyers will ask judges to order the commission to finish its work and then empower the Legislature to have the final say on district lines.
“There is now time to get things right for 2024 and the rest of the decade,” the lawyers, paid by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argue in a brief.
Lower courts have been divided on the request. A state Supreme Court justice initially sided with Republicans who opposed it. But the decision was overturned in July by a five-judge appeals panel, which backed Democrats’ arguments.
Democratic operatives have been frank about their ambitions.
“In states where Democrats can influence the process, they should try to pick up seats that help Democrats win,” Roth Smith said, adding that the party couldn’t afford to “unilaterally disarm” when Republicans were taking advantage of their advantages elsewhere and the 2024 elections were shaping up to be a fierce fight.
Republicans and government watchdog groups strongly oppose a repeat. They have characterized Democrats’ lawsuit as “an attack” on the court’s 2022 redistricting decision and have argued that Democrats are simply looking for another opportunity to gerrymander the lines.
“Their motto: If you can’t win on a fair set of maps, just redraw it by any means necessary, including stacking the floor,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, an endangered Republican from the city’s northern suburbs. from New York. “It’s pathetic and they should be ashamed.”
The case will be the first major test for the seven-member Court of Appeal since it underwent a makeover earlier this year.
Janet DiFiore, a former chief judge, announced her retirement last year, shortly after writing the majority decision overturning Democrats’ redistricting plan. Her successor, Judge Rowan D. Wilson, dissented from the 2022 ruling as an associate justice, and Republicans believe her position may help explain why Gov. Kathy Hochul and Senate Democrats decided to elevate it.
Analysts expected a liberal addition to the court, Judge Caitlin J. Halligan, to be the deciding vote in the redistricting case. But she unexpectedly recused herself from the case this fall with little explanation; Dianne T. Renwick, who heads a mid-level appeals court in New York City, will take her place.