The fight over one of the most consequential congressional battlegrounds in the United States will take center stage on Wednesday — not in the hotly contested suburbs or a campaign convention hall, but in a staid courtroom in Buffalo.
That is where Democrats will try to convince the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, to give their party a chance to redraw the state’s congressional map before the 2024 election.
The case will ostensibly turn on conflicting readings of the State Constitution. But the court’s decision in the coming weeks will have much farther-reaching political implications.
New York now has one of the most competitive congressional maps in the country, thanks to the court’s intervention last year. If Democrats prevail in the current case, they will most likely try to reassert their dominance with more favorable lines that could help them flip as many as six Republican seats from Long Island to Syracuse.
Republicans hold a narrow, five-seat majority in the House. With the number of truly competitive districts dwindling across the country as both parties enact stark gerrymanders, the fate of New York’s map could determine which party enters 2024 with the upper hand.
“A little-known court in New York is in all likelihood about to determine control of Congress,” said Evan Roth Smith, a Democratic political strategist, voicing the bipartisan anxiety the case is causing in New York and Washington.
So far, court decisions about redistricting since the 2022 midterm elections have mostly offset one another nationally. The North Carolina Supreme Court cleared the way for Republicans to adopt an aggressive gerrymander last month that could flip three to four seats their way. Democrats could, in turn, net two to three seats across the Deep South, where federal courts have ordered Republican-led states to redraw maps to empower Black voters.
The partisan legal battle over New York’s map has been raging almost continually for two years.
It started in early 2022 when a bipartisan commission created by voters to take politics out of the mapmaking process deadlocked and failed to finish its work. The Democrats who control the State Legislature then tried to step in with a plan of their own. But after Republicans sued, the Court of Appeals struck down the Democrats’ plan as an unconstitutional gerrymander.
The court ultimately enlisted a neutral expert to draw up the replacement that helped Republicans flip four districts last November and claim 11 of the state’s 26 House seats.
In the case before the Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Democrats plan to argue that the 2022 map was only a temporary fix imposed on a tight deadline. Their lawyers will ask the judges to order the commission to finish its work and to then empower the Legislature to have final say over district lines.
“There is now time to make things right for 2024 and the rest of the decade,” the lawyers, paid by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argue in a written brief.
Lower courts have split on the request. A State Supreme Court judge initially sided with Republicans who oppose it. But the decision was reversed in July by a five-judge appellate panel, which endorsed Democrats’ arguments.
Democratic operatives have been blunt about their ambitions.
“In states where Democrats are able to influence the process, they should try and draw seats that help Democrats win,” Mr. Roth Smith said, adding that the party could not afford to “unilaterally disarm” when Republicans were pressing their advantages elsewhere and the 2024 election was shaping up to be fiercely fought.
Republicans and government watchdog groups are firmly opposed to a do-over. They have characterized the Democrats’ suit as “an attack” on the court’s 2022 redistricting decision, and have argued that Democrats are just angling for another chance to gerrymander the lines.
“Their motto: If you can’t win on a fair set of maps, just redraw it by any means necessary — including stacking the court,” said Representative Mike Lawler, an endangered Republican from New York City’s northern suburbs. “It’s pathetic, and they should be embarrassed.”
The case will be the first major test for the seven-member Court of Appeals since it underwent a transformation earlier this year.
Janet DiFiore, the former chief judge, announced her retirement last year, not long after she wrote the majority decision striking down Democrats’ redistricting plan. Her successor, Judge Rowan D. Wilson, dissented from the 2022 ruling as an associate judge, and Republicans believe his stance may help explain why Gov. Kathy Hochul and Senate Democrats chose to elevate him.
Analysts had expected a liberal addition to the court, Judge Caitlin J. Halligan, to be the swing vote in the redistricting case. But she unexpectedly recused herself from the case this fall with little explanation; Dianne T. Renwick, who leads a midlevel appeals court in New York City, will sit in her place.