How the courts changed New York’s congressional maps but not its delegation, much

Current congressional lines. (Center for Urban Research)
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Yesterday was last-ditch day for the parties unhappy with a federal court's proposed congressional lines for New York, and, barring some serious surprises from the three-judge panel overseeing the process, the city's delegation is unlikely to see much turnover as a result.

For all the talk about the impact of a court-driven process for this year's redistricting—the courts took over after Albany legislative leaders failed to agree on a proposal for new congressional lines—and some howling from incumbents whose districts got substantially redrawn, most of the incumbents seem relatively safe in their new districts. The two obvious exceptions are Republican congressman Bob Turner, who has logged a total of six months in the House, and Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman, who last night announced that he wouldn't seek re-election, after years of rumors about his retirement. (Turner blamed the lines for forcing him into a Senate run; Ackerman explicitly praised the lines in his statement.)

At a hearing in Brooklyn yesterday, pleas to the federal judges overseeing the process to create a Hispanic or Jewish seat were met with considerable skepticism. The judges mostly parried criticism of the proposed adjustments to the maps that court-appointed special master Roanne Mann came up with, and expressed doubt about whether they had the legal authority to craft new "communities of interest" based on race or religion.

Most of the focus of the hearing was on northern Manhattan and the Bronx, where African-American and Latino groups have lobbied for new "majority" districts, and on southern Brooklyn, where some Jewish groups called on the court to either keep Turner's congressional district intact, or make sure blocs of Orthodox Jewish voters weren't separated into multiple districts.

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The judges weren't so sure about any of those arguments.

During the public comment portion of the afternoon, Judge Gerard Lynch interrupted to express his annoyance with attempts to define the newly created districts by their current office-holders.

"I realize it's convenient to refer to some of these districts by the names of the people who happen to be there," Lynch said. "But in particularly the case of Mr. Turner, it's his district for like a year, right? It just bothers me when districts are being referred to as if they're the property of particular people. It's not Mr. Turner's district, it's the district of the people who live there, in the former district nine."

Collectively, the judges questioned what characteristics would define a Jewish community of interest, with some supporters arguing that Jews were a distinct "race" that should be protected as if they were governed by the Voting Rights Act, and others simply arguing that they shared a geographical base, values and interests, that made the community a distinct bloc that shouldn't be diluted between three districts, as they are in the proposed plan.

The judges also wondered aloud why there was a need for a suggested Hispanic district that would stretch from northern Manhattan, across the Bronx and into northern Queens, when the court's proposed maps already provide for a majority in two districts (the 15th would be 65 percent Hispanic, and the 13th would be 55.1 percent), and one plurality (the 14th would be 47.5 percent, with whites making up the next largest group at 24 percent).

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who has already established an exploratory committee to consider a congressional run, argued that the proposed map dilutes the African-American population in Charlie Rangel's district, and that last new Spanish-speaking member was elected from the city in 1992, a number that doesn't adequately represent the city's Hispanic population.

"To create a majority Spanish-speaking district at the expense of a protected class, in a protected county, is very disturbing to many of us," he said.

"What is the commonality other than the ethnicity?" asked Judge Reena Raggi. "I ask that because you know we have a legal problem making a race or ethnicity the predominant factor in creating a community. Now if they had other interests that were shared by people that were not necessarily Latino, then I could see where you could say they're a non-ethnic community of interest."  

Raggi repeatedly mentioned that these types of communities were best identified by the legislature, and encouraged the legislature to "get started on it right away."

By the end of the day, the judges were feeling a little defensive.

When Espaillat began his remarks, apologizing for arriving late, and talking about the "disenfranchisement of voters," Judge Lynch interrupted with a long objection about how the court had done its best to consider all communities and there was no intent to disenfranchise anyone.

"Senator, I really resent this, if you're going to talk about an effort to disenfranchise people, I don't think you can say that about this plan," he said, saying people had worked "long and hard" and that "it's just got nothing to do with disenfranchising people."

"No, your honor, I wasn't referring to your map, I was referring to the work we did last night," Espaillat said, to laughs from the gallery.

"I don't know who you disenfranchised last night," the judge said, "but maybe we'll hear about that in another lawsuit."