Pa. Supreme Court calls for redrawing of state's district boundaries
● By Richard Gaw
Declaring it unconstitutional, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reached a 4-3 decision last week that called for the boundaries of the state's 18 congressional districts to be redrawn, in what many lawmakers and experts predict will rattle up the future of state politics.
In its order, the Court declared that the state’s congressional map “clearly, plainly, and palpably” violates the state constitution, and that future districting 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 Jan. 22, gives the Republican-controlled Legislature until Feb. 9 to create a replacement map, and Gov. Tom Wolf until Feb. 15 to submit the revised map to the court. Otherwise, the justices said they will adopt a plan in an effort to keep the May 15 primary election on track.
Pennsylvania’s congressional map has been the subject of severe criticism on both statewide and national criticism in recent years, referred to as a prime demonstration of gerrymandering in an effort to benefit Republican lawmakers, who currently control the state's congressional delegation, 13-5. Nowhere has the criticism been more cutting than in the map drawn for the 7th District, a congressional region that includes portions of Chester County.
Often described as resembling “Goofy kicking Donald Duck,” the jagged outlines of the district map, many assert, have been erased and drawn again in order to favor Republicans, who have consistently won 13 of 18 House seats since the map was last redrawn in 2011.
As expected, several members of the Pennsylvania Republican Congressional Delegation quickly issued a statement in opposition to the Supreme Court ruling, calling it “a misguided decision” and “an unfortunate example of the judicial branch inserting itself into the core functions of the legislative branch.”
Congressional maps were drafted and approved by both Republicans and
Democrats., the statement read. “It also comes on the eve of a
midterm election. An orderly electoral process is an essential
function of our Democracy.”
The statement was signed by U.S. Reps. Glenn Thompson (Pa.-05), Mike Kelly (Pa-03), Scott Perry (Pa.-04), Ryan Costello (Pa.-06), Patrick Meehan (Pa.-07), Bill Shuster (Pa.-09), Tom Marino (Pa.-10), Keith Rothfus (Pa.-12), Charlie Dent (Pa.-15) and Lloyd Smucker (Pa.-16).
While the task of redrawing the congressional map has been placed in the hands of the current Legislature, the ruling flies in the face of statewide efforts – both in Harrisburg and in grassroots organizations – to create an independent commission to do the redrawing, safe from any potential political bias.
Pa. Senate Bill 22, a bipartisan proposal introduced by Sens. Lisa Boscola-(D) and Mario Scavello-(R) and Pa. House Bill 722, a bipartisan proposal introduced by Reps. Eric Roe, a Republican, and Steve Samuelson, a Democrat, propose to create an 11-member independent citizens commission, chosen by the state's Secretary of State, to be in charge of both legislative and congressional redistricting.
The commission would include no current or recent elected officials, candidates, political party officials, or their aides or spouses would be eligible. Legislative leaders from both houses and parties would be able to strike a designated number of candidates from each pool. Further, the commission would establish transparent procedures, follow a strict timetable, and provide meaningful opportunity for public input prior to drawing plans and again before adopting final plans.
Approval of a final plan would then require at least seven votes, and at least one vote from each of the three groups. Once approved by the commission, the new district maps would not be subject to approval by the PA House and Senate or the governor, but any citizen could appeal the maps directly to the Pa. Supreme Court.
Although he favors any ruling to eliminate partisan gerrymandering, Roe said that a “temporary fix” is not the answer to a centuries-old problem. In a statement to the Chester County Press, Roe said that state residents deserve “an independent citizen-led redistricting commission like the one I have proposed in House Bill 722, which would make the redistricting process fair for every reapportionment going forward,” he wrote. “More than half of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has co-sponsored my bill because the majority of my colleagues recognizes the need for a permanent solution. The decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not changed my determination or resolve to remove politicians from drawing their own district boundary lines."
Fair Districts Pa., a nonpartisan, citizen-led, statewide coalition working to create a process for redistricting that is transparent, impartial, and fair, pledged that in light of he ruling, it would continue to support SB 22 and HB 722.
“They provide multiple safeguards for a fairer process, ensure a capable and demographically representative commission, and reduce the major political parties’ ability to manipulate district lines,” the group stated on its website. “While other redistricting initiatives have been introduced that address some of these concerns, they fall short of resolving the core conflicts of interest in today’s process.”
“We still need to really push our elected officials to enact these bills into law,” said David Unger of the Chester County chapter of Fair Districts Pa. “The only way that elected officials are going to do that is that if they feel a certain amount of pain. If they feel their jobs are at stake, then they're going to make an effort to put those bills into law.”
Unger said that although he anticipates that the redrawn maps won't be recreated without political bias, the court order is a step in the right direction.
“It's forcing their hand, to go back to the table for now,” he said. “If the Republicans know that the Supreme Court is no longer going to uphold whatever map that's going to come out of their committee, then they have more of an incentive to one, be fair, and two, take thee bills more seriously.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerrymandering Courtesy art The recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that calls for a redrawing of the state's congressional map is expected to streamline the peculiar boundaries of the 7th District.