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Judge Calls For Special Master to Draw NY Lines

12:25 PM, Feb 15, 2012   |    comments
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Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- Legislative leaders said Tuesday a decision by a federal court to intervene in the state's redistricting process might not have much impact on how it proceeds.

U.S. District Court Judge Dora Irizarry late Monday called on a federal appeals court to tap a three-judge panel to identify a "special master," who would "oversee and draw up a redistricting plan" that complies with state and federal law.

The panel, which was named Tuesday, will review the original lawsuit and decide how to proceed.

Irizarry criticized state lawmakers, who draw new district lines for state and congressional seats once each decade, for dragging their feet on the process. She noted that the period for congressional candidates to collect petitions begins March 20, but the legislative redistricting task force has yet to release any draft federal maps.

Lawmakers can't "simply rely on the history of past redistricting legislation that was passed and signed into law at the eleventh hour," Irizarry wrote in a five-page decision.

"They point to no affirmative steps being taken by the New York State Legislature at this time or that will be taken in the near future to pass redistricting legislation that will comply" with the law, she wrote.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, downplayed the decision on Tuesday, saying there's nothing unusual about the judge's ruling based on past years. Similar decisions were handed down in 1992 and 2002, Irizarry noted.

"In terms of a special master, I don't think it's going to happen for the (state) Legislature in terms of drawing the lines," Skelos told reporters. "In terms of Congress, it's happened before. Last redistricting (in 2002), a special master put out a special plan, then the Legislature adopted its own. And that's what we're running under right now."

LATFOR, the redistricting task force controlled by Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats, has released draft district lines for the state Legislature.

But good-government groups and the minority parties have derided the lines as politically partisan, drawn to protect their legislative majorities. They have particularly honed in on the state Senate and the GOP's plan to add a 63rd seat in the chamber.

Congressional maps, meanwhile, have yet to be released, and Skelos said they are a "week to 10 days" away.

Irizarry, a Republican based in Brooklyn, cited the state's compressed political calendar for congressional candidates as reason to intervene. A federal judge in Albany last month ordered the state to hold its federal primary on June 26, up from September, when it has traditionally been held.

Monday's decision sided with the plaintiffs, a coalition of New York voters who filed suit in November. They had called for the appointment of a special master, alleging that time had already run too short for lawmakers to draw their own lines.

The Senate GOP and Assembly Democrats argued judicial intervention in the once-a-decade redistricting process was "premature" -- a claim rejected by Irizarry.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, has vowed to veto any lines not drawn by an independent entity, with a veto sending the maps back to court. On Tuesday, he said he wasn't surprised to see the judge intervene, but said how to move forward with redistricting will be up to lawmakers.

"This is primarily up to the Legislature," Cuomo told reporters. "They are in charge of their own destiny here. They will make decisions and weigh their options."

LATFOR is controlled by Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats, who hold the majority in their respective houses. Senate Democrats, who have been critical of the task force, praised Irizarry's decision.

"We agree with the judge's request," spokesman Mike Murphy said. "The only way New Yorkers will have fair representation is if the courts not politicians draw the district lines."

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