Supreme Court Pass Means Pennsylvania Must Redraw Congressional Maps In 10 Days

Feb 5, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 10:21 am

Updated at 4:08 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania will soon have new congressional maps.

The United States Supreme Court has decided not to block a state court ruling requiring Pennsylvania's Legislature to immediately redraw its legislative boundaries.

Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court had previously ruled those 18 congressional districts — drawn by a Republican Legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2011 — were overly partisan and violated the state Constitution.

The state's Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature now have until Feb. 15 to draw new lines.

"The U.S. Supreme Court correctly recognized that there is no reason to delay implementing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's order," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Now, all parties must focus on getting a fair map in place. Gerrymandering is wrong and we must correct errors of the past with the existing map. My team is ready, willing and able to work with the General Assembly to ensure a new map is fair and within the clear orders given by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court."

Democrats had already been eyeing the Philadelphia suburbs as a prime target for picking up Republican-held congressional seats this fall. The ruling — and the new maps that will follow — will boost Democrats' efforts.

"I think a fair map in Pennsylvania can give Democrats an opportunity to win up to five seats in Pennsylvania," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NPR last week.

Democrats have pointed to several of the long, thin districts drawn on the eastern edge of the state as prime examples of lines drawn to maximize the number of Republican-held seats. The state is currently represented by 12 Republicans and five Democrats in the House, with one empty seat that was formerly held by a Republican.

The map passed with bipartisan support in 2011. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania's General Assembly have decried the state court ruling as partisan and have refused to provide the court with map-drawing data requested by the judges.

"We still do not believe that there was a violation of the state Constitution, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can direct us to draw a new congressional map, or that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the authority to draw a new Congressional District Map under the Pennsylvania Constitution or United States Constitution," state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said in a statement.

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman conceded the 2011 maps were drawn with politics partly in mind but argued that's perfectly valid. The U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican said, has repeatedly ruled that state legislatures have the right to draw district lines.

"Obviously the Legislature is a political body. We have Republicans and we have Democrats. It's a political body by definition," he told NPR. "So they've put that in the hands of a political body to make decisions. If you look at maps in Illinois, you look at maps in Maryland, I think you'll see maps that have interesting lines as well, that favor [Democrats]. Because they were in control. But the Supreme Court has time and time, and federal courts have time and time, ruled that that is allowed."

A federal court recently upheld Pennsylvania's congressional districts. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering two cases that test whether extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. One case tests state legislative district lines drawn in Wisconsin, while the second looks at a congressional district in Maryland. The court is expected to rule by June.

But Pennsylvania's ruling was based on the state, not federal, Constitution, and Justice Samuel Alito declined to interfere.

That means Pennsylvania's new map has to be drawn immediately. The state court ruling gave Pennsylvania's General Assembly until Friday to draw new boundaries and Wolf an additional week to approve or veto the new map.

If Wolf and Republican lawmakers can't reach a consensus by Feb. 15, the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court will draw the lines itself. The deadline for prospective candidates for Congress to file with the state is in March.

Wolf, like many Democrats, has long decried the 2011 lines as overly partisan. Comparing elections to baseball, Wolf said, "I have my favorite home team, and I love to see them win, but I would not like to see them win if the game were unfair and they got five strikes, while the opponents got two strikes."

But Wolf has declined to publicly provide specifics on what he would like lawmakers to prioritize — geographic compactness, competitiveness or other factors — as they race to draw new lines. "My biggest concern is unfairness," he told NPR.

Pennsylvania Republicans argue the state Supreme Court has now mandated an unrealistically rushed timeline. Wolf disagrees. "I think people have gerrymandered districts in far less time," he said.

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Pennsylvania will soon have new congressional maps. The U.S. Supreme Court decided yesterday not to block a state court decision that had ruled the current boundaries violate the state's constitution. Now, lawmakers have until the end of the week to come up with new district lines. NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: If there's one thing Democrats have decried as much as President Trump this year, it's gerrymandering. That's the practice of drawing legislative districts to benefit one party. Republicans did a lot of it in 2011 because they won so many seats in statehouses in 2010.

TOM PEREZ: You want a map that you can look at and it doesn't look like snakes have been rattling down the state. That's what happened in North Carolina. That's what happened in Pennsylvania.

DETROW: Tom Perez chairs the Democratic National Committee. But up until now, he and Democrats haven't been able to do much about these Republican-drawn districts. The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two cases in Wisconsin and Maryland but hasn't ruled yet. Pennsylvania will likely be the only place where maps get redrawn this year. And it was already a top Democratic priority.

PEREZ: Well, I think a fair map in Pennsylvania can give Democrats an opportunity to win up to five seats.

DETROW: Democrats are especially eager to redraw the lines of several suburban Philadelphia districts that snake around from county to county in order to pickup Republican votes. Unlike 2011, they'll now have a seat at the table. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf will have veto power over any map the Republican-controlled general assembly comes up with.

TOM WOLF: My biggest concern is unfairness.

DETROW: Wolf has been holding town halls to hear what people want in a new map. Here's what people said in Philadelphia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We have to get parity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How can we do it in a way that we can empower more women to participate in our state legislature?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And I want to be able to not have to drive five hours to see my congressman.

DETROW: Over the next few days, this will be the problem of State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and other Republicans. They're frustrated by the ruling of the Democrat-controlled state court, which they see as nakedly partisan.

JAKE CORMAN: (Laughing) We're just - it's the Supreme Court's world, we're just all living in it.

DETROW: Corman says the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that state legislatures have the right to draw districts.

CORMAN: It's a political body by definition. If you look at maps in Illinois, you look at maps in Maryland, I think you'll see maps that have interesting lines as well that favor Democratic maps because they were in control. But the Supreme Court has time and time - and federal courts have time and time ruled that that is allowed.

DETROW: Corman and other Republicans say the court has forced them to rush the map process just ahead of the March filing deadline for congressional candidates. Wolf isn't sympathetic.

WOLF: I think people have gerrymandered districts in far less time.

DETROW: Right now, Republicans hold 12 of Pennsylvania's 18 seats with one spot vacant. But Dave Wasserman, the House editor for The Cook Political Report, says a new map wouldn't necessarily close that gap - for instance, making a Republican district like the Lehigh Valley seat held by Congressman Charlie Dent more Democratic-leaning may help the party win there, he says.

DAVE WASSERMAN: But if you were to do that, then you might also endanger Matt Cartwright, a Democratic incumbent in northeastern Pennsylvania, because you'd be taking Easton out of his district and putting in, well, it would really be up to whoever draws the lines.

DETROW: After the GOP-controlled general assembly produces a map, Wolf will have until February 15 to OK or veto it. After that, the state Supreme Court will have final say and may just draw the lines itself. Scott Detrow, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAX TAILOR'S "THE ROAD IS RUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.