Pennsylvania made national headlines this week as the United States Supreme Court denied a stay in a case that requires the Commonwealth to redraw its congressional map, and to do so sooner than later. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the Commonwealth’s congressional map declaring it unconstitutionally gerrymandered and required the legislature to re-draw it by February 15, 2018.
The U.S. Constitution requires that the states redraw their Congressional map every 10 years so that the states’ representation in the U.S. Congress accurately reflects the states’ population, based on the decennial census. As populations rise and fall, so do representatives in Congress. After the 2000 census, Pennsylvania’s congressional districts were decreased from 21 to 19, and then to 18 in 2010. It is the duty of the Pennsylvania legislature to draw the maps, which are the adopted by the state Senate and House of Representatives in bill form.
The Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011 set the current boundaries for Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts. Though the state constitution requires that districts, when drawn and redrawn, be “contiguous and compact,” the 2011 plan divided 68 municipalities between at least two Congressional districts. No municipalities had been split in the previous plan.
It’s not uncommon for the maps to be challenged in the courts. In 2017, a challenge was brought that contended that the 2011 plan, adopted by a Republican-controlled legislature and approved by a Republican Governor, was created “with the intent to burden and disfavor the League of Women Voters and other Democratic voters’ rights to free expression and association.” They also alleged that the plan “prevented Democratic voters from electing the representatives of their choice and from influencing the legislative process.”
In October 2017, the Commonwealth Court issued a stay on the case, effectively putting a halt to all proceedings. However, on appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the stay, which required the lower court to hear the case. In late December of 2017, the Commonwealth Court found that the 2011 maps did not violate the state Constitution. The League of Women Voters then appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which on January 22, 2018 ruled by a 5-2 vote that the Congressional districts were unlawfully gerrymandered in violation of the state Constitution. The Court ordered that the maps be redrawn for the 2018 election cycle.
The General Assembly was tasked with creating a new congressional district map by February 9, 2018. (This deadline has come and gone; however, a bill is positioned for quick adoption once the maps have been redone). If not adopted by the General Assembly by February 15, 2018, Governor Tom Wolf has the authority to submit a plan to the state Supreme Court. If the timeframe cannot be met, the court will draw its own map, which would be implemented on February 19, 2018.
Any cartographer will tell you that map-making is no easy task. To that end, the state Republican leadership (who holds a large majority in both chambers and was at the helm of drawing the now invalid map) asked the United States Supreme Court to issue a stay in the Pennsylvania case, which would grant them more time to draw the maps. Justice Samuel Alito rejected the request.
But it doesn’t end there. A motion is pending before the state Supreme Court seeking to have Justice David Wecht (D) recused from the case due to past statements he made about how the Congressional districts were gerrymandered. In addition, Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) has refused to follow a court order requiring lawmakers to turn over data that would help redraw the state’s Congressional map; Scarnati believes that the court does not have the power to draw the map and the General Assembly should not be a party to that action.
Time is of the essence, with the first deadline come and gone and Wolf’s plan due on Thursday. Stay tuned to this blog and at @BuchananGov.