PA Supreme Court refuses stay for remapping congressional districts

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Today, members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a request for a stay on remapping Pennsylvania’s Congressional Districts.  

On Monday, January 22nd, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the current congressional district map is unconstitutional saying it “clearly, plainly, and palpably” violates the constitution.  The case only applies to the state’s 18 seats in the US House of Representatives.

A day later, Michael C. Turzai, Speaker of the PA House of Representatives and Joseph B. Scarnati, III, PA Senate President Pro Tempre submitted an application for a stay of the court order, giving two reasons that the redistricting should be pushed back.  

The first reason they give is that it “throws the 2018 Congressional elections into chaos,as the General Assembly is now tasked with redrawing the Congressional plan using new constraints never before applicable to Congressional redistricting, with minimal guidance, and without reasoning explaining why the existing plan violates the State’s Constitution. And it must do all this on the eve of candidate qualification for the upcoming primary elections.”

The second reason is the question of who is in charge of the redistricting.  “The question is whether a state judicial branch can seize control of redistricting Congressional seats from the state legislature, and the answer is no.  Although this Court has the final say on the substantive law of Pennsylvania, US Supreme Court precedent makes clear that the identity of ‘appropriate state decisionmakers for redistricting purposes’ is a question of federal, not state, law under the Elections Clause.” 

In a petition against the request, it’s said that “…this Court struck down the 2011 map on the ‘sole basis’ that the map ‘clearly, plainly and palpably’ violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.  For good reason:  the map was the worst partisan gerrymander in Pennsylvania’s history and among the worst in American history.  Rather than get to work drawing a new map, Legislative Respondents return to this Court claiming that they need a stay to preserve the ‘integrity’ of Pennsylvania’s congressional elections.  There is no basis to stay this Court’s order, and the applications for a stay should be denied.”

Respondent Lieutenant Governor Michael J. Stack, III answered saying he joins the Petitioners and Executive Branch Respondents in that the stay should be denied.  Stack sites that, being a Senator in 2011, he remembers that “only eight days passed between the release of the 2011 plan and its enactment, with the PA Senate passing the 2011 plan on the same day it was released” and “only eleven days were required for Judge Craig to draft a complaint congressional map in 1992, and to receive public input in the process”.  Therefore, Stack says, “Any argument that a new map cannot be drawn in 19 days fails to recognize this historical record, and is especially disingenuous when made by the very legislative leaders who controlled the schedule before the General Assembly in 2011”.  He closes by saying that the two requests for a stay should be denied.

In a response from Governor Tom Wolf, Acting Secretary Robert Torres, and Commissioner Jonathan Marks, say that “Before the Commonwealth Court, Executive Branch Respondents set forth unrebutted testimony demonstrating that if the Department of State has a map in place by February 20, the 2018 election cycle, including the May primary, can proceed with minimal adjustments to the election schedule. The Order provides for a new map to be put in place by February 19. Within this timeframe, the Department of State is more than capable of ensuring an orderly and efficient congressional election.”

In response to the fact that drawing lines is a federal issue, the Executive Branch Members respond, saying, “This Court’s authority to review the constitutionality of a redistricting map includes the power to impose a remedial map if the General Assembly fails to enact a valid plan. This Court has done so, as have other state courts.”

The response adds that “there is no basis for Applicants’ claim that implementing a new map will ‘cause voter confusion’ or ‘depress turnout.’ District lines change, at a minimum, every ten years. Each time, voters easily adjust. First, redistricting does not affect polling locations. Second, public education will help prevent voter confusion.”  They go on to say they would educate the public on the new map by newspaper, social media, press releases, and that they would post the information to the Department of State’s publicly accessible website.

Ultimately, the PA Supreme Court stuck to their decision on remapping and the first draft is due to Governor Tom Wolf by February 9th.  He has until the 15th to approve it.

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