[UPDATED] Judge says proposed redistricting commission could not be independent


Albany Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath has ruled that a proposed state redistricting commission cannot be considered independent and that the word must be struck from ballot language before the November election. 

During the general election, voters will decide on Proposition 1, which as currently written would "reform the process of establishing new state legislative and congressional district lines that the Constitution requires every 10 years. If the proposal is approved, an independent redistricting commission will be established to determine lines for legislative and congressional districts, subject to adoption of the commission’s plan by the Legislature and approval by the Governor." 

But McGrath ruled that "the commission cannot be described as 'independent' when eight of 10 members are the handpicked appointees of the legislative leaders and the two additional members are essentially political appointees by proxy." 

Common Cause New York issued a statement on the ruling: 

In a strongly worded decision, Albany Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath ruled unequivocally that the proposed redistricting commission: "cannot be described as 'independent' when eight out of the ten members are the handpicked appointees of the legislative leaders and the two additional members are essentially political appointees by proxy".

Judge McGrath further rejected the notion that the Commission could produce an independent set of legislative maps since: "the Commission's plan is little more than a recommendation to the Legislature which can reject it for unstated reasons and draw its own lines". In no uncertain terms, the Judge found that: "The plan can be rejected for the purely partisan reasons that this Commission was designed to avoid".

In perhaps the most stunning rebuke, Judge McGrath ruled that the unique voting rules for the commission would be entirely unprecedented in New York State history: "The Court is not aware of any other law in New York State that has ever required a Commission or any legislative body's vote approval to be dependent on the political make-up of the Legislature."

As such, the Board of Election is instructed to remove the word "independent" from the language, which will appear on the November ballot as Proposition 1.

The decision is a major victory for reformers who brought the petition in an effort to give voters the most objective description of the commission on which to base their decision. The petitioners were represented by Neil Steiner, a litigation partner in the New York office of Dechert LLP.

"Common Cause/NY is grateful for the Court's common sense ruling: the redistricting commission cannot be described as independent because it isn't. As the Judge made clear, this Commission would only be a proxy for the Legislature. Voters deserve the same straight talk when they go to cast their ballot in November. Common Cause/NY will be urging voters not to be fooled and to reject Proposition 1 on Election Day," said Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY

"To exercise the right to vote – the very core of our democracy – voters must be given fair and accurate information. We're pleased that the court recognized that describing the proposed commission as "independent", when it so clearly is not, unfairly tilted the playing field, and stopped the Board of Elections from doing so," said Mr. Steiner.

Citizens Union has also released a statement: 

"Proposition 1 offers New Yorkers the chance to vote for real reform in Albany. This amendment creates an open and fair redistricting process that works in the interests of New Yorkers by creating a commission that takes drawing lines for political advantage out of the process, ensuring that district lines are not drawn to favor incumbents or to discourage competition and, for the first time, ensuring that the public has a say in the redistricting process. On November 4th, all voters should vote yes for progress."