HARRISBURG – The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a plea from state Republicans seeking to halt a state Supreme Court order that would require the Legislature to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional maps by Friday.
The state Supreme Court called for new maps on Jan. 22, less than a week after hearing oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters on behalf of voters from each of the state’s 18 congressional districts.
The case affects only the state’s congressional districts, which are established by legislation. The legislative boundaries for districts of lawmakers in the General Assembly are created by a bipartisan redistricting commission.
Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the state court’s ruling because of the condensed timeline and the threat that if the Legislature fails to produce new maps on time, the state Supreme Court will produce its own.
The decision comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to allow lower federal court decisions in two other gerrymandering lawsuits in North Carolina, and Wisconsin to stand.
In those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has put stays in place to postpone redrawing of the congressional maps in those states until it decides what to do. The U.S. Supreme Court has also agreed to consider a Maryland case in which Republican voters sued to allege that a single district in that state was illegally gerrymandered. In that case, the lower courts had determined that the district was legal.
Those cases originated in federal court. A similar federal lawsuit to the Pennsylvania maps failed. The case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene on Monday was filed in state court and attorneys for the League of Women Voters argued they based their arguments on state law.
Pennsylvania’s congressional maps are considered some of the most gerrymandered in the nation, with the 7th Congressional district being particularly notorious for looking like Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
Gov. Tom Wolf, in a statement, said that with the Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene in place, “Now, all parties must focus on getting a fair map in place.”
Wolf said his office is ready to work with the General Assembly to get new maps approved.
“Gerrymandering is wrong, and we must correct errors of the past with the existing map,” he said.
The decision could set up a scramble by lawmakers to comply with the order before the deadline, but it wasn’t clear Monday that lawmakers intend to even try.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said that lawmakers from the Senate and House have not yet met to determine how or whether they will try to pass Congressional maps by Friday.
Corman said some lawmakers are skeptical that the state Supreme Court will approve anything passed by the Legislature.
Lawmakers have also not had any conversation with the governor about what he would consider acceptable in a redrawn map.
Under the court’s Jan. 22 order, if the Legislature passes legislation redrawing the congressional boundaries by Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf has until Feb. 15 to approve them.
When the existing maps were drawn, the Legislature and the governor’s office were both controlled by Republicans. The state now has divided power, with the Legislature controlled by Republicans and a Democrat, Wolf, in the governor’s office.
Corman said it’s not obvious that the court will automatically OK a plan if it’s passed by the Legislature and approved by the governor.
“The Supreme Court is setting new ground,” he said. “We’re not sure what they will do.”
Legislative leaders have complained that they are hamstrung by the vague guidance provided by the Supreme Court and the justices have indicated that if the Legislature doesn’t pass a plan by Friday, the court will redraw the congressional district boundaries.
The circumstances could have dramatic implications in this year of mid-term Congressional elections. The court’s decision means candidates and the voters now don’t know what the congressional districts will look like for the spring primaries on May 15.
In a state where there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, the GOP holds 12 of the state’s 18 Congressional seats. And a 13th seat was held by Republican Tim Murphy before he resigned last year. A special election for his successor is set for next month.
Amidst all this uncertainty, five of the incumbent members of Congress, including four Republicans, have announced they are not seeking re-election. They are: U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Democrat from Philadelphia; Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Delaware County; Bill Shuster, a Republican from Bedford County; Lou Barletta, a Republican from Luzerne County; and Charlie Dent, a Republican from Lehigh County. Barletta is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, in the fall election.
Officials at the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which also supported the gerrymandering legal challenge, hailed the decision.
“This was always a Pennsylvania state court case about Pennsylvania’s Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court rightly refused the Republican Legislative leaders’ attempt to manufacture a federal issue,” said R. Stanton Jones, a partner at Arnold & Porter, the law firm that argued the case for the League of Women Voters. “Pennsylvania voters will now get to cast their ballots in fair elections this year.”
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, said that decision upholds the right of voters to fair representation in Pennsylvania.
“This decision is a victory for the voters of Pennsylvania who would have been required to vote in a fourth election under an illegal partisan gerrymander had the Court sided with the defendants,” Flynn said.
The maps deemed illegal by the state Supreme Court were put in place in 2012. Attorneys for the League of Women Voters had argued that the election results in 2012, 2014 and 2016 provided the evidence to support their contention that the maps were illegally gerrymandered. In 2010, Democrats held seven of the state’s 19 congressional seats. When the new maps were put into place, the state lost one congressional seat because of shifting population, and two districts held by Democrats were essentially combined into one district. As a result, the Republicans held a 13-5 advantage in congressional seats in 2012. They maintained that margin in the two subsequent elections.
While the court’s timeline is intended to have the new maps in place for the May primary, it would have meant that the boundaries wouldn’t be established until two days after the state election calendar indicates candidates can begin circulating petitions from supporters.
To accommodate the move to remake the congressional maps, the Department of State has moved back the start of petition-circulating for Congressional candidates to Feb. 27.
Wolf has announced that he has hired Moon Duchin, a math professor from Tufts University, to determine if the redrawn maps are nonpartisan enough to pass muster.
Corman noted that the state Supreme Court has hired an expert from California, Nathaniel Persily, from Stanford Law School, to assist in their efforts to come up with new maps if the Legislature fails to provide them with one to review.
“Apparently no one in Pennsylvania knows how to do this,” Corman said.
The state Senate last week passed legislation that would serve as a vehicle into which map language can be inserted if an agreement can be reached, Corman said.
The push to complete the unprecedented task of redrawing the congressional maps comes at a particularly hectic time for the Legislature.
Gov. Tom Wolf is due to give his budget address on Tuesday, a winter storm is expected to hit the state on Wednesday and the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl victory parade is on Thursday.
Corman said that while some lawmakers will likely want to attend that parade, there should be enough at the Capitol to vote on re-drawn maps if there’s a plan in place.
CNHI News Service