The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed several constitutional challenges to the state Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s second set of legislative districts, approving new district boundaries for state elections from 2014 to 2020.
The high court ruled that challengers failed to show the LRC’s design "overwhelmingly" showed political subdivisions had been split when it was not "absolutely necessary" in redrawing Pennsylvania’s 50 Senate and 203 House districts.
The court also turned aside challenges that some of the districts were not sufficiently compact or contiguous as required by state law and ruled that the commission may consider political factors, so long as those factors do not trump the constructional requirements found in Article II, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The ruling means Pennsylvanians have a set of maps with the force of law for the remainder of this decade, albeit one election cycle later than they had expected. Last year, voters were forced to reuse outdated lines when, in an unprecedented move, a deeply-split Supreme Court found a similar group of petitioners had demonstrated the commission’s first plan was unconstitutional.
As was the case when the court ruled 4-3 to reject the first set of maps, it was Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille that wrote for the court in upholding them.
The court unanimously said that, while the maps were not flawless, flawless is not the standard and that the commission had gotten close enough.
For the justices, the issue of whether the commission had unnecessarily split too many political subdivisions was the "most troublesome challenge," and Castille highlighted that it was to this issue that the parties had devoted the bulk of their arguments.
However, Castille said more than once that there is no mathematical formula for devising the maps, and that an improvement in one area of the constitutional requirements very well may lead to a decline in another area. Accordingly, the legislature vests the commission with "considerable discretion" to carve out districts it deems to be most practicable after balancing all the relevant factors.
"The proffered alternate plans this time around thus more directly implicate the court’s repeated caution that the question is not whether there exists an alternative redistricting map which is claimed to be ‘preferable’ or ‘better’ than the LRC’s map, but rather whether the LRC’s proffered plan, which must balance multiple considerations, fails to meet core and enumerated constitutional requirements," Castille wrote for the six-justice court.
The court found proof of this in increases to population deviation (which ideally should be kept under 10 percent) in the House and Senate districts, which Castille said allowed the commission to reduce the amount of subdivisions it had to split.
In fact, according to Castille, the challengers even acknowledged the increase in population deviation, alone, as an improvement from the 2011 plan to the most recent one.
The court also decided that a reapportionment commission may consider political factors, such as preservation of existing districts and protecting incumbent legislators (and protecting them from having to compete for the same new seat).
That is, so long as those considerations "do not do violence to" Section 16′s mandates of equality, contiguity, compactness and respect for the integrity of political subdivisions.
"In short, the requirements in Section 16 necessarily trump mere political factors that might color or corrupt the constitutional reapportionment process," Castille said, citing his first opinion in the case from February 2012.
The maps will be effective beginning with the 2014 election cycle, the court ordered.
The decision dismisses more than a dozen appeals, including one petition spearheaded by a Northeast Pennsylvania piano teacher, Amanda E. Holt, and one led by state Senator Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, the Senate minority leader and one of two Democrats on the first-member commission.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, is the other Democrat.
On the Republican side was Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny. The commission is chaired by former Superior Court Senior Judge Stephen J. McEwen Jr., a Republican, as well.
Reached for comment, the commission’s lead attorney said the group was satisfied with the court’s handling of the case.
"The commission is quite pleased that the court has found the 2012 plan meets the state constitutional requirements," said Joseph A. Del Sole, of Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd in Pittsburgh. "The commission is also pleased the court said when you look at subdivision splits, you have to look at them in comparison to the number of political subdivisions in the commonwealth as a whole."
Virginia A. Gibson of Hogan Lovells in Philadelphia represented Holt and did not immediately return a call requesting comment. Clifford B. Levine of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh represented Costa and the senators and did not immediately return a call.
When the justices first handled the case, Castille departed from his Republican political affiliation as the court narrowly threw out the commission’s plan early last year. The ruling first came as an order, just days after the appeals were argued in Harrisburg.
Before the court’s majority even issued its full opinion, the ruling faced backlash from several prominent legislators arguing such a proposal was unconstitutional.
But Castille, in an 87-page opinion, said the court had no other choice.
"As we have noted earlier, we recognize that our constitutional duty to remand a plan found contrary to law has disrupted the 2012 primary election landscape," Castille said. "That disruption was unavoidable in light of the inexcusable failure of the LRC to adopt a final plan promptly so as to allow the citizenry a meaningful opportunity to appeal prior to commencement of the primary season."
The Republican lawmakers’ concerns were outlined in the opinions of the three justices who — while some commended the majority for its promptness — declined to join it.
Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is now serving house arrest following criminal convictions on corruption charges, said last year that it was "clear that there is no perfect plan" and that she would have approved the 2011 plan.
"In light of the significant public interest and exigencies of the electoral process, I believe the majority’s disposition is both unprecedented and unnecessary," Orie Melvin said.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor, in a concurring and dissenting opinion, said he agreed with the majority that the 2011 final plan marked an improvement from the 2001 plan that the court approved 10 years before.
Nevertheless, and despite Saylor’s own concerns in 2001 that courts should "not occupy an unduly passive role" in evaluating redistricting plans, the justice said he would have approved the 2011 plan.
In a short concurring opinion from Saylor coming alongside the most recent decision, Saylor echoed his view that criticizing "the internal process" of the commission is something that should be done with caution.
"Contrary to the majority’s assertions, moreover, the LRC’s present advocacy does not appear to overstate the constitutional commands under which it operates," Saylor said. "Rather, it seems to me, for example, that the LRC appropriately points out that Article II, Section 17 requires that the commission be composed mainly of legislative floor leaders, accomplish its work in a set timeframe, and act by majority vote; and reasonably explains why continuity of representation, while not constitutionally required, represents a ‘legitimate consideration’ that the LRC may, in its discretion, take into account."
(Copies of the 68-page opinion in Holt v. 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission, PICS No. 13-1408 are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •