Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strikes Down Congressional Map In Partisan Gerrymandering Case

The state court — in a brief, two-page ruling — ordered new congressional maps to be drawn over the next month.

Pennsylvania's congressional map violates the state's constitution and must be redrawn before this year's elections, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Monday afternoon.

The ruling, a brief, unsigned, two-page order, holds that the congressional map "clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Five of the seven justices on the court agreed with the League of Women Voters and others who brought the case alleging that the map is an unconstitutional "partisan gerrymander." Under the map, only five of the state's 18 congressional districts are represented by Democrats — despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the swing state.

Unlike other partisan gerrymandering cases pending before the US Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania case was brought in state court. Monday's order stated that the ruling is made "on th[e] sole basis" that the map violates the state's constitution — making US Supreme Court review more difficult because the US Supreme Court can only review federal claims in such a case. Nonetheless, the attorney for state Senate Republicans told that they will seek review from the US Supreme Court.

Under the court's order, the legislature must pass a new map by Feb. 9 and, if the governor approves it, they must submit it to the court by Feb. 15. If they do not do so, the court states that it will "proceed expeditiously to adopt a plan based on the evidentiary record developed in the Commonwealth Court."

The court's order provides little other detail about the basis for its ruling at this time — although it states that a further opinion will follow — a fact that was criticized by the two dissenting justices, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Sally Updyke Mundy.

The only other substantive information the court provided was in the form of its directive regarding the new map. The court stated that "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."

A third justice, Justice Max Baer, agreed with the majority of the court that the current map is unconstitutional, but wrote that concerns about disruption in the process for the 2018 elections lead him to "believe it more prudent to apply our holding in this case to the 2020 election cycle."

Nonetheless, Baer added, "Having said all of this, I readily acknowledge the Court’s commendable attempt to compress the process of correcting the map to conduct timely primary elections. I will cooperate with the Court as it pursues its admirable goal, so long as all involved receive due process."

In the court's opinion, it addresses that attempt to "compress the process," noting that state officials should expect that, regardless of how it's done, "a congressional districting plan will be available by February 19, 2018." As such, the court goes on, state officials are "to take all measures, including adjusting the election calendar if necessary, to ensure that the May 15, 2018 primary election takes place as scheduled under that remedial districting plan."

The US Supreme Court heard arguments this past October over whether partisan gerrymandering claims can be brought to federal court and, if so, how they should be considered in a federal case out of Wisconsin. The court also agreed to hear a similar federal case out of Maryland, and put a lower federal court's ruling on hold that struck down North Carolina's congressional map pending an appeal.

Saylor referenced these cases in his dissenting opinion, writing that "it would have been appropriate to stay this matter pending anticipated guidance from the Supreme Court of the United States" in the Wisconsin case.

Monday's ruling has no effect on the March 13 special election to fill the 18th Congressional District seat in the state.

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