Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Orders Congressional Districts Redrawn

  • Republicans head for U.S. Supreme Court to halt ruling
  • ‘Goofy kicking Donald Duck’ map called absurd by challengers

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting map, possibly giving Democrats a boost in a key state as they seek to take back the House of Representatives in this year’s elections.

The majority of justices gave the Republican-controlled legislature until Feb. 9 to draw up a new plan for approval by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf or have the court do it for them. The map violated the state’s constitution, they said.

Republican leaders immediately said they’d ask the U.S. Supreme Court to put Monday’s ruling on hold. The nation’s high court already halted a decision from a three-judge federal court panel that ordered North Carolina’s Republican-drawn Congressional map reconfigured. It’s unclear whether the high court will intervene in the case because the Pennsylvania court said its ruling was based on state law -- on which it has the final word -- and not federal law.

Four of the Pennsylvania high court’s seven justices said the new map must be ready for the state’s May 15 primaries, though not for a March 13 special election that pits Democrat Conor Lamb against Republican Rick Saccone for a seat vacated by Republican Tim Murphy. 

The League of Women Voters’ Pennsylvania chapter sued to invalidate the existing map, accusing the legislature of erasing prior district boundaries and reconstituting them with the goal of maximizing Republican voters’ political advantage.

‘Goofy’ Map

"These decisions resulted in district lines that are absurd," the League said in its June 17 petition. "Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District has been described as ‘Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.’ The 12th District could be mistaken for the boot of Italy."

To comply with its order, the majority of justices said any new plan must consist of 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 case split the Pennsylvania Supreme Court largely along partisan lines. The four justices in the majority are Democrats. The two dissenters are Republicans.

Justice Max Baer agreed the map was unconstitutional but said the rush to draw new district boundaries would disrupt the May primaries. Citing the organizing, canvassing and fundraising that has already been done in reliance on the 2011 map, Baer urged the new map not be implemented until 2020.

"It is naive to think disruption will not occur," he said.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor dissented from the majority, saying he’d have put the case on hold while awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a partisan gerrymandering case over the Wisconsin state legislature. Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy agreed with Saylor.

The GOP took took 54.1 percent of the state’s congressional vote in 2016 and won 72 percent of the congressional seats, attorneys for the group said in court papers. Republicans now hold 13 of 18 congressional districts.

The League hasn’t shown that the 2011 Plan produced an actual discriminatory effect, Republican Pennsylvania House Speaker Michael Turzai said in court documents.

The case is League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 159 MM 2017, Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Middle District (Harrisburg)

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