Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court’s decision on Monday, holding that the commonwealth’s congressional map violated Pennsylvania’s constitution by giving a partisan advantage to Republicans, is likely to have an impact on national politics, according to attorney Cliff Levine, who represented Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a Democrat, in the case.
Levine, a member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community who is active in the Democratic Party, argued the case before Pennsylvania’s highest court. Although Stack is listed as a defendant in the case, he and three other Democratic executive defendants have supported the plaintiffs’ position. The other Democratic defendants are Gov. Tom Wolf, Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres and Jonathan Marks, commissioner for the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation.
Attorney Lazar Palnick, also a member of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, served as co-counsel to Levine on the case.
The Court, in a two-page order, struck down the Congressional Redistricting Act of 2011 as illegal gerrymandering, and enjoined its further use in elections for Pennsylvania seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning with the May 15 primary.
The Court will follow with a more thorough opinion.
The Court gave the Pennsylvania General Assembly until Feb. 9 to submit a new congressional districting plan to the governor. If Wolf accepts that new plan, it must be submitted to the Court by February 15.
The new districting plan, said the P.A. Supreme Court, must consist of 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.”
If the General Assembly fails to submit a new congressional districting plan by February 9, the Court is to adopt its own plan, according to the order.
The March 13 special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District, to fill the vacancy resulting from Republican Tim Murphy’s resignation last fall, is not affected by the decision.
With a more balanced, redrawn map, Levine said, Pennsylvania, a swing state, could end up with four new Democratic congressmen, which is “20 percent of the difference nationally between Republicans and Democrats in the House.”
The collective influence of some Pennsylvania communities has been stifled by the existing map, according to Levine, and redistricting could “lead to an additional voice of different communities that have a lot of Jewish residents.”
Montgomery County — a suburban county northwest of Philadelphia, some of which is included in the 7th Congressional District — is, he said, a “poster child” for the chaotic effects of gerrymandering.
“Montgomery County has a significant Jewish population,” Levine noted. “And it tends to vote Democratic. You could fit an entire congressional district in Montgomery County, but it is split into five districts, with no representatives that reside in Montgomery County.”
Montgomery County’s “sizable Jewish population has a meaningful voice to offer Pennsylvania and the country,” Levine said.
Pittsburgh, he said, has also been “subject to overt partisan gerrymandering.”
As an example, Levine pointed to the 12th Congressional District, currently served by Republican Keith Rothfus, which extends from the Ohio border for 120 miles, past Johnstown.
“It’s hard to represent that district,” Levine said, “because there are so many different communities with different interests.”
In a concurring and dissenting statement, Justice Max Baer said that although he agreed that the current districting map is unconstitutional, the imminent time frame imposed to create a new map could be problematic.
“The change of the districts’ boundary lines at this time could result in candidates, incumbents and challengers alike, no longer living in districts where they have been carrying out [campaign] activities for a year or more,” Baer wrote. “This says nothing of the average voter, who thought he knew his Congressperson and district, and now finds that all has changed within days of the circulation of nomination petitions.”
Following Monday’s decision, Republican leaders petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the order, calling into question the commonwealth’s supreme court’s authority to rule on the legislation.
“In short, the question in this case is whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the Pennsylvania ‘Legislature’ under the federal Constitution, and the answer to that question is a resounding no,” wrote lawyers for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai in their petition to the Court.
It is unclear how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in this case, Levine said. He does, however, distinguish the Pennsylvania case from other gerrymandering cases the Court is considering in that it is based “solely on the Pennsylvania constitution, and not the U.S. constitution. This is a state supreme court interpreting its own state constitution.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org