ALBANY — The independent expert in charge of drawing up New York’s congressional and state Senate district maps has his work cut out for him.
Voters and advocates from across New York joined lawyers for Republicans and Democrats on Friday in an upstate courtroom, providing special master Jonathan Cervas with plenty to consider as he recrafts the state’s recently scrapped district maps.
Cervas listened with intent and appeared to take diligent notes as speakers expounded on the virtues of specific proposals they’d like to see replace the Democrat-drawn districts ruled unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals last month.
“This is urgent. This is not something I like doing,” said Esmeralda Simmons, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, noting that she’s 71.
“However, it’s important… it’s so important that we urge you to have more hearings,” she added.
Simmons and others called on Cervas to consider a proposed congressional redistricting plan centered around keeping “communities of interest,” including Asian American, Black and Latino populations, intact. Supporters of the Unity Map Coalition argued that Census data was coupled with other factors including access to mass transit when crafting the plan.
Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, was named special master by Steuben County State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister last month and tasked with creating nonpartisan maps.
His appointment came as a Republican-backed lawsuit resulted in districts drawn up by the Democratic-controlled Legislature being tossed by the state’s highest court.
In addition to violating a 2014 constitutional change meant to take the politics out of the redistricting process, the Court of Appeals agreed with lower court rulings that Democrats gerrymandered the congressional maps in their favor.
McAllister moved New York’s congressional and state Senate primaries from June to August as the districts are redrawn. At the moment, the state’s remaining primaries, including Assembly and all statewide races, are still scheduled for June 28.
A separate lawsuit filed by Democrats attempting to resuscitate the scrapped maps appeared destined for failure after the state Board of Elections maintained that the August primary won’t pose any problems in a letter submitted Wednesday to a federal judge.
Lawyers representing the Republican petitioners on Friday argued in favor of maps submitted to McAllister that they say are more balanced.
Attorneys for the Democratic legislative leaders, meanwhile, provided a tweaked congressional plan and resubmitted the already-tossed Senate map, arguing that it was only dismissed due to a failure to follow the process laid out in the state constitution.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-New York) was among those who testified Friday, arguing that his South Bronx congressional district should remain intact since it is the “most compact and contiguous district in America.”
“New York 15 is not broken and therefore there is no need to fix it beyond what is minimally required by 9,000 people,” he said.
The special master has until May 24 to unveil his final maps, which will be used for the next decade.
The saga surrounding the map mess will continue next Tuesday when McAllister will weigh additional legal challenges seeking to have Democrat-drafted state Assembly district maps voided as well.
McAllister scheduled a May 10 hearing to discuss a legal brief filed by the head of the New York Young Republican Club calling for the Assembly districts to be tossed as well as a separate suit filed by upstate businessman and former Democratic state Senate candidate.
Gary Greenberg, a part-owner in the Vernon Downs Casino and longtime advocate for laws supporting survivors of child sex abuse, is also calling for the petitioning process to be reopened for all races in the state since the collection of signatures was completed while the since -scrapped maps were still in play.
That would mean candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide races would have to gather new signatures for what would likely be a combined August primary.