The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday ruled the state’s current congressional map was the result of partisan gerrymandering and ordered lawmakers to redraw the districts in time for the primary election in May.
The justices ruled 5-2 in League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that the Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011 was unconstitutional—a victory for the Democratic voters who challenged the Republican-controlled Legislature’s current districting layout.
In the court’s order, the majority held the act “clearly, plainly and palpably violates the constitution of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and, on that sole basis, we hereby strike it as unconstitutional. Accordingly, its further use in elections for Pennsylvania seats in the United States House of Representatives, commencing with the upcoming May 15, 2018, primary is hereby enjoined.”
Senate Republicans did not take to the ruling kindly.
“Today’s ruling by the state Supreme Court is a partisan action showing a distinct lack of respect for the constitution and the legislative process. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overstepped its legal authority and set up an impossible deadline that will only introduce chaos in the upcoming congressional election,” said a joint statement from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman.
The lawsuit was filed in the Commonwealth Court by the League of Women Voters and a group of Democratic voters against the state, questioning the fairness of the boundaries that make up Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. They claimed that the Republican-controlled Legislature manipulates districts in such a way as to minimize the impact of the state’s Democratic voting population.
In their complaint, the voters called gerrymandering “one of the greatest threats to American democracy” and argued that the state’s Republican legislators “dismantled Pennsylvania’s existing congressional districts and stitched them back together with the goal of maximizing the political advantage of Republican voters and minimizing the representational rights of Democratic voters.”
If the Legislature and the governor don’t come up with a new districting plan before Feb. 15, the court said it will take matters into its own hands to “proceed expeditiously to adopt a plan based on the evidentiary record developed in the Commonwealth Court.”
The court also provided specific instructions for how the map is to be redrawn, noting that districts must be “composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”
Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, agreed with his colleagues’ decision that the current map was unconstitutional, but expressed concerns that implementing the new map in time for the 2018 primary in May would cause confusion.
“It is naive to think that disruption will not occur,” Baer wrote in his opinion. “Prospective candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, have been running for months, organizing, fundraising, seeking their party’s endorsements, determining who should be on canvassing and telephone lists, as well as undertaking the innumerable other tasks implicit in any campaign—all with a precise understanding of the districts within which they are to run, which have been in place since 2011.”
He continued, “The change of the districts’ boundary lines at this time could result in candidates, again incumbents and challengers alike, no longer living in the districts where they have been carrying out these activities for a year or more.”
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor disagreed with the majority’s ruling, as did Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy. Both are Republicans.
While recognizing that there were questions about the “constitutional viability” of the current districts, Saylor wrote in his dissenting opinion that guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court was needed in the matter.
“My position at this juncture is only that I would not presently upset those districts, in such an extraordinarily compressed fashion, and without clarifying—for the benefit of the General Assembly and the public—the constitutional standards by which districting is now being adjudged in Pennsylvania,” Saylor said.
In a statement released Monday shortly after the decision, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said, “I strongly believe that gerrymandering is wrong and consistently have stated that the current maps are unfair to Pennsylvanians. My administration is reviewing the order and we are assessing the executive branch’s next steps in this process.”
The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia represented the League of Women Voters.
“Today marks a new day in Pennsylvania,” said Mimi McKenzie, the center’s legal director, in a statement Monday. “Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court now leads the nation in opposing extreme partisan gerrymanders, putting legislators across America on notice that they can no longer draw maps that dilute the voices of the voters.”