The decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters on behalf of 18 voters spread among the Keystone state’s 18 congressional districts. The lawsuit challenged the congressional districts as being gerrymandered – drawn to unfairly benefit one party -across the state.
“The Court finds as matter of law that the Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011 clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and, on that sole basis,we hereby strike it as unconstitutional,” the court order reads.
A look at Pennsylvania, which has slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, shows that the state has 13 Republicans elected to congressional seats and only five Democrats. The lawsuit said that the congressional districts were redrawn to benefit Republicans, noting that Republicans won the 13 congressional seats while only receiving about 50 percent of the total number of votes.
Reviews of Pennsylvania congressional districts over the years have found gerrymandering in various districts. However, the Eighth Congressional District that is represented by Republican Brian Fitzpatrick usually is not ranked among the worst.
The order granted Monday was approved 5-2 by the state’s Supreme Court. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, the two Republicans on the court, wrote in a dissenting opinion that they would not have ruled on the lawsuit until the U.S. Supreme Court made a determination on partisan gerrymandering cases.
When will the districts be redrawn?
According to the court order, the new maps of the 18 congressional districts will have to be submitted by February 9, 2018, which is 19 days from the date of the order. At that point. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will have to approve or reject the new districts by February 15. The new districts would be used in the upcoming spring congressional primary election. However, this all could change as Republicans plan to appeal the decision from the state’s highest appellate to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Democratic Justice Max Bare wrote an opinion that he would have rather have waited to redraw the districts in 2020 to avoid causing confusion in this year’s congressional election.
Who draws the new districts (and who drew the old ones)?
The standing districts were drawn by state Republicans in 2011, based on data from the latest Census. This year, Republicans still hold a legislative majority in Harrisburg and will rework the districts. The difference from 2011 is that Wolf is a Democrat and has to approve all the district changes proposed by Republicans.
Will the Eighth Congressional District be redrawn?
Most likely, but the exact changes will not be known until the deadline. The district previously included portions of Northeast Philadelphia and Allentown.
What are the ground rules?
“To comply with this Order, any congressional districting plan shall consist of: congressional districts 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,” the court order issued Monday said.
What happens if districts aren’t redrawn or no one can agree by February 15?
The state Supreme Court will be forced to update districts based on evidence submitted and additional information provided to the court.
Will Republicans fight the decision?
Yes, Republicans are expected to fight the state Supreme Court decision.
Gov. Tom Wolf has supported redrawing the congressional maps and his office issued a statement Monday.
“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,” he said.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, both Republicans, issued a statement stating the state Supreme Court “overstepped its legal authority and set up an impossible deadline that will only introduce chaos in the upcoming congressional election.”
“Today’s ruling is a major win for Pennsylvania voters. This decision brings us one step closer to fairly drawn districts that respect communities and value each and every vote equally,” a statement from Democratic congressional candidate Rachel Reddick said.
“While it is true that some districts are gerrymandered for political gain, the 8th congressional district is not gerrymandered in the slightest. The timing of this move is very peculiar as it figures to throw many congressional races into a tail spin. I question the true motive of this move given the fact that we are in the heart of primary season. The timing is very strange,” according to a statement from Republican congressional candidate Dean Malik’s campaign.
The chairperson of the League of Women Voters-backed Fair Districts PA, Carol Kuniholm, said the ruling was a first step, adding a “long-term remedy is a constitutional amendment to take redistricting power out of the hands of the legislative leaders.”
Fair Districts PA and other groups have proposed taking redistricting out of partisan hands and altering the Pennsylvania Constitution to create an independent commission.
“This ruling is one more example of the courts telling Republican legislatures that drawing district lines for partisan purposes violates our democratic principles,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. The nation’s former top law enforcement official is currently leading the the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Pennsylvania is not alone in gerrymandering controversies. Other states like North Carolina and Ohio are currently waging fights to redraw their congressional districts.