Democrats suffer rare court losses in redistricting battles
Judges in two deep-blue states in the last week have struck down Democratic efforts to draw favorable congressional district map lines, stinging rebukes to a party that for the last decade has used the judicial branch to even the playing field with Republicans.
State court judges in Maryland and New York ruled that the Democratic-controlled legislatures there violated their respective constitutions by unduly favoring one party over another in the decennial redistricting process.
New York legislators earlier this year approved new congressional district lines that would have given Democrats the advantage in 20 of the Empire State’s 26 congressional districts and Republicans an edge in only four seats. The remaining two seats, currently held by Reps. Antonio Delgado (D) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D), narrowly favor Democrats.
In Maryland, after a decade of maps that elected seven Democrats and just one Republican, the legislature got even more aggressive. Maps passed in December would have added thousands of new Democratic voters to an Eastern Shore district held by Rep. Andy Harris (R), endangering the state’s lone remaining Republican.
“They’re clearly gerrymanders,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the main GOP group coordinating remap efforts.
Democrats defended their maps after judges ruled in their respective cases. In a joint statement, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) said they were “disappointed” in a decision that “is not representative of the historic and long-standing legal requirements” the legislature considered when drawing its map.
“We intend to appeal this decision,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Attorney General Letitia James (D) said in a one-sentence joint statement. State law in New York means the maps passed by Democratic legislators will remain in effect while that appeal is adjudicated. Democrats said they are optimistic of winning their appeal; they noted the judge who struck down their maps serves in the most Republican county in the state.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) also said he would appeal. Maryland’s legislature has passed a new version of their maps that would go into effect only if the judge’s ruling stands.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement that the judge in the Maryland case had a point.
“The judge is right, and the legislature is not wrong,” Holder said. “An adherence to fairness and democracy principles may result in a map not significantly different than the one initially drawn.”
But the early losses represent the first major defeats in state courts for Democratic-drawn maps this year.
The maps under legal threat represent a new approach for Democrats, who for decades have used the decennial redistricting process to shore up their incumbents in swing seats, said Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“Historically, Democrats have placed priority on incumbent protection, and this time in places like New York they tried to take out Republicans,” Li said. “Democrats have been more aggressive this cycle.”
Democrats have scored their own string of redistricting victories this year, defending maps in states like Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon and New Mexico and beating back, at least temporarily, Republican-drawn maps in Ohio and North Carolina. In the last decade, Democrats successfully challenged Republican-drawn maps in states such as Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
But the legal victories for Republican plaintiffs are an indication that courts are willing to scrap Democratic maps they see as going too far.
Though Democrats have accused Republicans of radical gerrymandering in recent years, the practice is hardly new. The brothers Phil and John Burton, Democrats who controlled redistricting in California 40 years ago, were considered the fathers of modern gerrymandering.
“The notion that Democrats don’t gerrymander has always been farcical, and they’re just doubling down on it this cycle,” Kincaid said. “They’re more than happy to advocate for and support gerrymandering where it benefits them.”
Those who watch the redistricting process every decade say Democrats are making the most out of their limited opportunities to influence maps. Republicans completely control the redistricting process in 19 states that send more than one representative to Congress; Democrats control the process in only eight states. The remaining states either draw boundaries by commission or are divided between the two parties.
In some of the Democratic-controlled states, the party’s advantage is already maximized. Democrats control every seat in the Massachusetts and Rhode Island delegations, and they will likely hold five of six seats in Oregon. That, Li said, inspired some Democrats in the few remaining states they control — such as New York, Maryland, Illinois and New Mexico — to shoot for the moon.
“If you’re playing a bad hand, you have an incentive to maximize the gains you can,” Li said. “They have an incentive to be aggressive and see what they can get away with.”
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