HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania is one step closer to re-drawing its congressional district maps after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene against an order issued by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court to create a new map.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who has the power to refer emergency appeals from Pennsylvania to the full Court, left in force a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling requiring the Republican-controlled legislature to draw new lines by Friday for approval by Gov. Tom Wolf.
The Pennsylvania court last month said the old map, challenged as being too skewed toward Republicans, violated the state constitution.
"The way that the law is written, the United States Supreme Court doesn't have, or shouldn't have any control over what state Supreme Courts interpret their own Constitutions to be, and this was a suit filed under Pennsylvania law in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," said Suzanne Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters PA, which is one of the parties in the lawsuit.
A new election map could give state Democrats a boost as they attempt to take control of the U.S. House in the November election. Republicans hold 13 of the 18 Pennsylvania seats after taking 54.1 percent of the vote in 2016.
To clear that hurdle, Pennsylvania Republicans attempted to argue that the state court's ruling violated the U.S. Constitution by stripping the state legislature of its power to draw voting maps.
"We see this as the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court pushing us toward a real constitutional crisis," said Matt Brouillette, president of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs. "The State Supreme Court said [the maps] are unconstitutional, but gave zero guidance as to how they have violated the law."
Governor Tom Wolf issued the following statement on the ruling:
“The U.S. Supreme Court correctly recognized that there is no reason to delay implementing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order. 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.”
Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai issued the following joint statement on the ruling:
“Today Supreme Court Justice Alito denied our stay petition for the Congressional Map Redistricting case. We understood when requesting the stay that this is a rarely used remedy, but given the chaos caused by the state Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the state’s congressional map, we believed the request was necessary.
“It is astounding that fourteen days after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the map to be unconstitutional, the Justices have still not issued a majority opinion. This irresponsible approach handicapped Justice Alito by not providing him with more information, just as it has handicapped the Legislature.
“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.
“We will do our best to comply with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s January 22nd order, but may be compelled to pursue further legal action in federal court.”
That argument worked for North Carolina; the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a ruling that would have forced that state to redraw its congressional voting map for the 2018 election. But unlike the Pennsylvania decision, that ruling was based on federal law and directly raised issues that are before the high court in cases from Wisconsin and Maryland, Bloomberg said.
Gerrymandering critics are hoping the court will rule that voting maps can be so partisan they violate the Constitution.
"It's important because the way that maps are drawn determines how voters' voices are heard," Almeida said. "Where maps are drawn so that politicians are choosing their voters and not the other way around, it dilutes the voice of the voter, and that's just unacceptable."
The current Pennsylvania map includes the sprawling 7th District, which critics say resembles the cartoon character Goofy kicking Donald Duck. The district is held by Republican Patrick Meehan, who is retiring after reports that he settled a sexual harassment allegation.
Under the state Supreme Court's order, the General Assembly must produce newly drawn maps by Friday, and receive an approval from Governor Wolf by February 15th.
If neither perform their duty and complete the task, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will produce a map by February 19th, and allow voters to elect candidates based upon those during the 2018 election cycle.