HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s congressional map Monday, granting a major victory to Democrats who charged that the 18 districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to benefit Republicans.
Two local candidates for the 11th Congressional District say they will continue to network with potential voters even though the district boundary lines may now be in question.
In a 4-3 decision, the Democratic-controlled court said the boundaries “clearly, plainly and palpably” violate the state’s constitution, and blocked it from remaining in effect for the 2018 elections.
The justices gave the Republican-controlled Legislature until Feb. 9 to pass a replacement and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf until Feb. 15 to submit it to the court. Otherwise, the justices said they will adopt a plan in an effort to keep the May 15 primary election on track.
The deadline to file paperwork to run in primaries for the state’s congressional seats is March 6.
“We won the whole thing,” said David Gersch of the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm in Washington, D.C., which is helping represent the group of registered Democrats who filed the lawsuit last June.
The defendants — top Republican lawmakers — said they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court this week to step in and put the decision on hold. They said the state court’s decision lacks clarity, precedent and respect for the constitution, and that it would introduce chaos into the state’s congressional races.
The decision has immediate implications for the 2018 election, meaning that 14 sitting members of Congress and dozens more people are running or considering running in districts they may no longer live in. It also has implications for GOP-control of Congress, since only Texas, California and Florida send more Republicans to the U.S. House than Pennsylvania.
The decision came as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether redistricting can be so partisan that it violates the U.S. Constitution, in cases from Maryland and Wisconsin. The high court has never struck down an electoral map as a partisan gerrymander.
Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor’s office following the 2010 census broke decades of geographical precedent when redrawing the map, producing contorted shapes, including one dubbed “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”
They shifted whole counties and cities into different districts in an effort to protect a Republican advantage in the congressional delegation. They succeeded, securing 13 of 18 seats in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 5 to 4.
The Pennsylvania court’s six-paragraph order did not lay out the rationale for striking down the 2011 congressional map, or which provisions of the constitution the justices believed it violated. That rationale could follow in the coming days.
The four justices throwing out the map were all Democrats, including three elected in 2015. The dissenting justices — two Republicans and one Democrat — gave varying arguments, including worrying about the logistics of making the decision effective in 2018 and not waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on pending federal cases, including one on appeal from Pennsylvania.
The March 13 special election in a vacant southwestern Pennsylvania seat is unaffected by the order, the justices said.
Republican Stephen Bloom and Democrat Alan Howe, both of Carlisle, are seeking their party nomination for the 11th District seat held by Republican Lou Barletta. Barletta has opted not to run again for Congress in a bid to challenge incumbent Democrat Bob Casey Jr. for his U.S. Senate seat.
“It certainly creates an unexpected new twist in the situation for every candidate across Pennsylvania,” said Bloom, who opted not to run for reelection to the 199th Legislative District of the state General Assembly. That district includes parts of Cumberland County.
“It’s an unprecedented situation,” said Bloom, adding that he will continue to work to build relationships and meet people while everyone awaits the outcome of the court order.
Bloom was not sure if a federal court would have jurisdiction to intervene since the ruling is based on an interpretation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
An attorney, Bloom opted to reserve judgment on the legal merit of the ruling until he had the opportunity to study it.
In the lead-up to the court ruling, Democrat Alan Howe talked with his election committee about the possibility of the boundary lines being redrawn.
“We’re going to press forward in the path we’ve been on,” he said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.” This means keeping to the schedule of holding town hall meetings in Shippensburg on Jan. 23, Bloomsburg on Feb. 7 and Carlisle on Feb. 13.
Howe said it has been his goal since retiring from the Air Force to increase the number of educated and informed voters. “That is our primary effort,” he said Monday. “That is why we keep having town hall meetings. We have gotten people more engaged in the political process, more informed on the issues and more empowered. I have made a ton of new friends.”
The court ruling will put the primary election under a little stress, Howe said. “It will be difficult for voters to get to know the candidates. But ultimately this is better for the voters. The districts will be more in compliance with the Pennsylvania Constitution and respect for the constitution is always a good thing.”
The court order will resolve one of the main challenges of the 11th District, Howe said. Voters in the northern part of the district rarely interact with voters in the southern part of the district. The court ruling would require smaller and more compact districts.
Howe said he plans to run for Congress even if the boundaries change and he is up against a Republican incumbent.
State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-30, which covers part of Cumberland County, previously announced he would seek the 15th Congressional District seat. That seat is held by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, who announced he would not seek re-election.
Response to the decision fell along party lines.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who were defendants in the case, expressed outrage with the ruling.
“Today’s ruling by the State Supreme Court is a partisan action showing a distinct lack of respect for the Constitution and the legislative process," they said in a statement. "The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has overstepped its legal authority and set up an impossible deadline that will only introduce chaos in the upcoming Congressional election.
“The Court had this case since Nov. 9, 2017 – giving it over 10 weeks to reach this decision. Yet, it has elected to give the Legislature 19 days to redraw and adopt the Congressional Districts. With matters the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in the past, it afforded the General Assembly four months to make corrections.
“It is clear that with this ruling the Court is attempting to bypass the Constitution and the legislative process and legislate themselves, directly from the bench. We will be filing an application with the United States Supreme Court this week to request a stay.”
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, called it a "terrible decsion."
“In a power grab of breathtaking audacity and overreach, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court today ruled that it will arrogate to itself the authority to re-draw the commonwealth’s congressional districts, if the Pennsylvania General Assembly does not develop and Gov. Wolf does not approve a new statewide congressional map in a matter of weeks," Toomey said in a statement. “As Chief Justice Saylor states in his dissent to the court’s ruling, the ‘crafting of congressional district boundaries is quintessentially a political endeavor assigned to state legislatures by the United States Constitution.’ Pennsylvania’s current congressional map was written and approved by majorities in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, and signed by Pennsylvania’s governor. The proper role of judges is to enforce the law, not to legislate their political beliefs from the bench, which is clearly what is happening in this case. It is my hope that the defendants will appeal this terrible decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, joined Toomey in his criticism.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s politically motivated decision is a partisan attempt to overturn the will of the Legislature, which approved these congressional maps with Democrat votes in 2011. Back in 2010, this same court said these district lines were constitutional — the only things that have changed between then and now are makeup of the court and Democrats being dissatisfied with the results," DiGiorgio said. "This decision by judicial activists contradicts two-hundred years of precedent along with the findings of their own fact-finder, Judge Brobson. By legislating from the bench, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is throwing our elections into chaos and confusion. We intend to support efforts to secure a stay from the United States Supreme Court, similar to the recent stay granted in North Carolina."
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said the ruling confirmed his stance on gerrymandering.
"I strongly believe that gerrymandering is wrong and consistently have stated that the current maps are unfair to Pennsylvanians," he said in a statement. "My administration is reviewing the order and we are assessing the executive branch's next steps in this process."
Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a Democrat, applauded the decision.
“Today’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling is a victory for all of us who want to restore both the rights of Pennsylvania voters and the integrity of our redistricting process," Stack said in a statement. "This decision affirms our contention that the current districts were stretched and contorted to achieve maximum political advantage for one party in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Supreme Court’s conclusion that the current congressional map ‘clearly, plainly and palpably’ violates our state constitution was supported by the overwhelming evidence presented in this case."