Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Federal magistrate judge Roanne Mann is bringing together the sides with skin in the redistricting game today at a hearing to review legislative and community activist proposals for how the state’s 27 congressional districts could be drawn.
The hearing comes as state lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo are reportedly in the midst of trying to hammer out a deal that would see better lines for the Governor to pass alongside a constitutional amendment to change the redistricting process going forward.
But as Jimmy Vielkind of the Albany Times-Union reports, the process is far from finalized:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who denounced LATFOR's first draft of lines as "hyper-political," is wielding the threat of a gubernatorial veto to make lawmakers agree to a new law and changes to the State Constitution that would rip the map-making pen from legislators themselves.
Assembly Democrats outlined a draft package of possible changes last week, the Times Union reported Thursday, but the new system still allows for final revisions by legislators — something that has left some good-government advocates uneasy.
A Cuomo administration source said Sunday that there was no overall agreement, and as such, "if they are drafting now then they are drafting for a veto."
Even as the redistricting morass continues, three distinct pieces of the overall puzzle should be watched closely:
1) Albany may be out of time on the congressional maps
When Judge Mann setup the court's calendar for redrawing the state's congressional lines, there was talk after about the "ifs": if the legislature could act quickly, and if they could agree on a new congressional primary date, and if Cuomo would sign them into law, and if the Department of Justice could expedite their Voting Rights Act pre-clearance review, then maybe the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans could still draw the congressional lines.
That was a week ago. None of those things have happened, even as each chamber has released how it thinks congressional lines should be drawn. And while there's a chance that all those things could happen before the end of next week, when the three-judge panel will presumably rule on Judge Mann's district lines, the window of opportunity for Albany lawmakers is narrowing to the thinnest of slivers.
2) The federal court case isn't the only one
The federal lawsuit that could see Judge Mann drawing the state's congressional lines has drawn the vast majority of attention recently, but it's not the only pending lawsuit on redistricting.
In State Supreme Court last week, state legislators were again the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state senate's proposed 63rd seat. Senate Democrats were up in arms when the plan to up the senate's size was revealed in January. Now, they are in court urging State Supreme Court Judge Richard Braun to disagree with Senate Republicans' lawyers who say that, since the plans haven't been passed, the judge can't say intervene.
Braun has yet to reach a decision, but depending on how he rules, the process for drawing state legislative lines could be thrown into uncertainty. If Braun agrees with Senate Democrats, it would mean the entire map drawing process for the senate would have to start all over again with 62 seats this time.
3) Governor Cuomo is still the most important piece of the redistricting puzzle
Despite claiming redistricting "is a problem that is now between the Legislature and the judiciary," the reality is Governor Andrew Cuomo remains the most decisive figure in the redistricting process.
It is his threat of a veto that drives the negotiations happening over a possible constitutional amendment, as well as new and improved district map lines. As one person close to the negotiations mentioned last week, the "A" maps are out, the legislature is ready with "B" maps, but the Cuomo team wants them to get to "C" maps--something Vielkind's reporting today supports.
But beyond that, Cuomo's veto is also the biggest thing standing between the legislature and the courts. Thanks to the Texas redistricting case, the courts will likely approach New York's lines very differently if the Governor vetoes them. Without a lawmaker-approved set of maps, the court could easily see the process as wide open. Should Cuomo sign the maps into law, the Texas case would then be relevant in any of the future lawsuits likely to pop up.
Whether he likes it or not, Governor Cuomo is the point where all the threads of the state's redistricting process comes together. How he chooses to use his veto pen will be the single biggest factor in how the state and federal legislative lines in New York will look for the next ten years.