While state leaders have debated the state Supreme Court’s imposition of a new congressional map, state Sen. John Eichelberger presented his own take on the matter during a business breakfast in Carlisle earlier this month.
During a talk to the Carlisle Area Chamber of Commerce Feb. 16, Eichelberger said the court’s actions were a matter of subterfuge by “the unions” as part of a scheme that would also redistribute school funding from school districts with a majority of white students to minority-heavy districts.
The chamber breakfast, held at the Comfort Suites in Carlisle, was hosted by Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry CEO Gene Barr.
Although billed as a state budget discussion, Barr first asked Eichelberger about the recent court decision to redraw the state's congressional districts map.
“This is the scariest, most dangerous thing I’ve seen since I’ve been in the state Senate,” said Eichelberger, who predicted a “constitutional crisis” caused by “very activist Democrat judges.”
In January, the state Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs in a challenge to Pennsylvania’s congressional district maps, which were drawn by the Legislature’s GOP majority after the 2010 census. The court ruled that the maps were gerrymandered in a way that violated the legal doctrine of fair and equal representation.
Republican and Democratic legislators, along with Gov. Tom Wolf, were unable to agree on a new map by the court’s deadline, causing multiple maps to be submitted by the state government.
On Feb. 19, the court imposed a new map, which the court said takes into account all of the potential maps submitted by officials, as well as analysis by mathematical experts on redistricting from several universities. Republican lawmakers have challenged that map with lawsuits.
At the Feb. 16 chamber event, Eichelberger objected to the fact that the full court opinion was not issued until two weeks after the order to redraw the maps was rendered, creating a “virtually impossible” timeline.
“Arguably, you were told basically to build a building without the blueprints because you didn’t have the opinion,” Barr said.
“Now we’re faced with the court saying they’ll have a map drawn on Monday (Feb. 19),” Eichelberger said. “They have no business drawing that map.”
Republicans have been critical of the ruling by the state Supreme Court, which includes a majority of Democratic judges, as well as the subsequent map released by the court on Feb. 19
Eichelberger alleged that a meeting had occurred several months ago between state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the Republican chair of the State Government Committee, which oversees redistricting, and Fair Districts PA, the plaintiffs in the court challenge.
Advocates from Fair Districts PA, which bills itself as a nonpartisan citizens group working to stop gerrymandering, discussed only the state legislative boundaries with Folmer, and not the U.S. congressional map, Eichelberger said.
“So they get up to leave, and Mike says to them, 'We went through all the state issues, what about the congressional issues?'" Eichelberger said. “And here’s what they said — and this was months ago — here’s what they said: 'The unions told us not to worry about that, the Supreme Court will take care of it.’”
Fair Districts PA confirmed the meeting with Folmer, but not Eichelberger's description of what transpired.
“We met with a number of legislative leaders, including Sen. Folmer, and we have not at any time discussed unions,” said Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA.
Rather, Kuniholm said Fair Districts PA met with legislators to discuss Senate Bill 22, which would create an independent redistricting commission for both the state House and congressional redistricting processes. Creation of a commission would require an amendment to the state's constitution but, advocates point out, it would obviate the need for the courts to intervene in the map-drawing process.
Kuniholm said that, contrary to Eichelberger's insinuation, many union leaders have been reluctant to support Fair Districts PA's push for SB 22, due to the way redistricting is currently done in Pennsylvania.
While U.S. congressional maps are passed as a bill by the full Legislature, state-level House and Senate districts are drawn by a five-member commission comprised of two Democratic appointees, two Republican appointees, and one member chosen by the state Supreme Court.
With a Democratic majority now on the court, many Democratic officials and their supporters in union leadership would rather wait until the next redistricting, when the state will almost certainly be gerrymandered in the opposite direction, given that three of the five members of the commission could be Democratic-leaning. This could then flip the state Legislature toward Democrats, allowing them to create their own partisan redistricting bill for Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation.
“We have not had strong union support for our organization and for SB 22, and we believe it is because union leadership is quite eager to see Democrats gerrymander the maps the other way,” Kuniholm said.
“We are still very puzzled at Republican leadership’s inability to grasp the simple fact that if they don’t fix it now, they’re about to get hammered by their opposition in the next round,” she said.
Folmer’s office did not respond to an inquiry as of press time.
Eichelberger also questioned the role of the state Supreme Court regarding a lawsuit over Pennsylvania’s school funding system.
That lawsuit was reinstated by the court in September after facing several years of furloughs. The suit claims that Pennsylvania’s relatively low levels of state education aid forces school districts to rely on local property taxes, which creates an inherent disadvantage for students who live in a district that features a high number of pupils compared to its collective real estate value.
This violates the constitutional mandate that the state “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” according to the school districts that filed the suit.
Eichelberger said the lawsuit has a racial motivation.
"There’s a case that’s been brought into court on the equity of school funding by schools that say minority students are not getting funding ... they’re not being funded fairly compared to white students in Pennsylvania,” Eichelberger said.
The Legislature and governor’s office have maintained the courts should not take up the case, since funding formulas are a matter of legislation that the court is not empowered to control. Recently, however, Wolf sent a letter to the courts asking them that, if the case is to be taken up, it be done expeditiously.
“The governor reversed his opinion about 2-3 weeks ago, sent a letter to the court asking them to expedite the case on school funding,” Eichelberger said. “Sure enough, within a week, the Supreme Court ordered the commonwealth court to schedule oral arguments for, I think, next week in this case.”
Commonwealth Court records indicate arguments are next scheduled for March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.
When contacted, Wolf’s office said that the governor does not see this as a reversal of his position, but rather an admission that the court would take up the issue regardless of what the executive branch wanted.
“All we’re saying is if it’s going to go through the courts, we want it to be resolved expeditiously, because it could be a pretty big change,” said JJ Abbott, Wolf’s spokesman.
Eichelberger drew parallels with the school funding case and the redistricting ruling by the state Supreme Court.
“It’ll be the same thing,” Eichelberger said. “They’ll come in and say, ‘You know what, we don’t think this funding is fair, and we’re going to say it’s unconstitutional, and we’re going to tell the Legislature to redo the school funding formula and if they don’t have it done by a certain date, we’re going to decide the school funding formula ourselves.’”
“So for the people in this room that operate school systems, you could have a real serious problem,” Eichelberger said. “Because if we have to shift around that funding, I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But we’re not going to be able to back-fill funds to certain school districts that have high minority populations, and then not take it from other school districts that don’t.”
“There may be a whole string of these decisions coming,” Eichelberger said.
Six school districts are listed in the suit — William Penn in Delaware County, Panther Valley in Schuylkill and Carbon counties, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre and Shenandoah Valley in Schuylkill County. The petitioners also include six families of affected students, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
Nowhere in the court filing is funding between different racial demographics challenged, and nowhere in the state Supreme Court's opinion, which grants the case, written this past September, are racial disparities cited as an impetus to hear the argument.
Eichelberger’s inference that low property value districts are nonwhite is true in only two of the six cases.
William Penn School District, located just outside Philadelphia, covers a population that is 23.97 percent white and non-Hispanic, according to 2016 U.S. Census survey data. The School District of Lancaster is also a majority-minority district, with 44.89 percent of its covered population being white and non-Hispanic.
The other four districts in the suit, however, serve communities with strong Caucasian majorities: Panther Valley at 89.33 percent white non-Hispanic, Shenandoah at 81.76 percent, Greater Johnstown at 81.67 percent and Wilkes-Barre at 74.82 percent, according to census data.