HARRISBURG — Registered Democratic voters suing to overturn Pennsylvania’s Republican-crafted map of congressional districts asked the state Supreme Court in a new filing to redraw the district borders if the Legislature and governor can’t do it within a two-week window.
The plaintiffs outlined their arguments in a 76-page brief filed Friday with the state Supreme Court, ahead of oral arguments planned for Jan. 17.
They suggested the court give lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf two weeks to redraw lines using nonpartisan criteria, then review the map with the help of a court-appointed special master to make additional changes. If that process does not work, they suggest the justices and the special master adopt their own map.
Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf face a Wednesday deadline to respond.
At stake in the case is whether the high court, with a 5-2 Democratic majority, will follow a recommendation made by a lower court judge about a week ago and reject the challengers’ argument that the map violates existing law by unfairly favoring Republicans.
The challengers argued that the state’s map of 18 congressional districts is among the most partisan in American history, saying it has proven to be “impervious to the will of voters.”
They said legislative Republicans “sought to predetermine the outcome of congressional elections for a decade” with the map, accusing them of retaliating against constitutionally protected political expression and association.
The 2011 map was drawn in secret by Republican leaders and approved by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. It passed the Senate on party lines but a few dozen Democrats voted for it in the House.
The result has been a GOP advantage of 13-5 in all three congressional election cycles since then, even as Democrats have won the governorship and all three statewide row offices, and only narrowly lost the state in 2016 to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Republicans also hold commanding margins in both chambers of the General Assembly, legislative maps that are not part of the pending litigation.
In late December, Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson produced his analysis of the case, submitted for the high court’s consideration after a five-day bench trial. Brobson, a Republican, concluded the plaintiffs had not shown the map clearly violates the state constitution.
The plaintiffs argued in the new filing that partisanship was the predominant consideration by Republicans in developing the maps, in some places drawing districts only as wide as a building so that targeted population areas could be connected into a single district. The result, they said, has been to discriminate against Democratic political voices.
“That petitioners can donate, campaign or vote for a doomed candidate is no answer,” they argued.
Brobson saw an effort in the maps to intentionally advantage Republicans, according to the Democratic challengers, but said map makers had traditionally sought a partisan edge.
“But a historical pedigree is no reason to perpetuate invidious discrimination,” the Democratic plaintiffs’ lawyers told the high court.
In a separate challenge to the map, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia is considering how to rule after a trial last month. The U.S. Supreme Court also is expected to rule in the coming months about whether Wisconsin’s legislative redistricting was constitutionally proper, a case that could set new national standards for redistricting.