Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strikes Down Gerrymandered Map In Big Win For Democrats

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strikes Down Gerrymandered Map In Big Win For Democrats
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Updated 5 months ago

On Monday, January 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the congressional redistricting map for the 2018 midterm election, stating that it "clearly, plainly and palpably" violated Pennsylvania's constitution by favoring Republicans. 

The ruling is the most recent example of states fighting back against gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the act of drawing electoral districts to disproportionately benefit the political party that draws them. America is especially vulnerable to this practice because our congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures, and whichever party controls the legislature controls redistricting. Why not tilt things in their own favor? 

The only potential consequence is the district map being thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania is known as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Experts have argued that the congressional districting map has resulted in three additional Republican seats in the House of Representatives. Though the GOP won just over 50% of congressional votes in the last three elections, 13 of the 18 Pennsylvania congresspeople are Republicans. 

The League of Women Voters teamed up with 18 voters from each of Pennsylvania's congressional districts to file a suit against GOP lawmakers. They claimed the map violated "the equal protection and free expression guarantees in the state constitution." The Supreme Court agreed and gave Pennsylvania's Congress until February 9 to draw up a new one. If they fail to do so, the Court is ready to do it themselves. Either way, the state can expect a new map by February 19. 

David Gersch, a lawyer working with the League of Women Voters, commented:

Pennsylvania voters will finally be able to cast their ballots in districts that were fairly and constitutionally drawn. This is a tremendous day for Pennsylvania, tremendous day for the voters and it’s also a tremendous step by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The current map is the worst map in Pennsylvania’s history.

Congressional Republicans are already appealing the decision, and the two Republican justices on Pennsylvania's seven-person Supreme Court both issued dissenting opinions to the majority ruling. Many in the GOP are decrying the court's vagueness in ordering the map redrawn. Redrawn in what way? To what degree is gerrymandering acceptable? E. Mark Braden, a lawyer for Pennsylvania's Speaker of the House, claims it is "inconceivable that a political body like a legislature, which is constitutionally tasked with drawing lines for Congress, would not take partisan considerations into account." 

Republican congressional leaders issued a statement on Monday denouncing the court's decision:

Today’s ruling by the State Supreme Court is a partisan action showing a distinct lack of respect for the Constitution and the legislative process.  The PA Supreme Court has overstepped its legal authority and set up an impossible deadline that will only introduce chaos in the upcoming Congressional election. The Court had this case since Nov. 9, 2017 ― giving it over 10 weeks to reach this decision. Yet, it has elected to give the legislature 19 days to redraw and adopt the Congressional Districts. With matters the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in the past, it afforded the General Assembly four months to make corrections. ... It is clear that with this ruling the Court is attempting to bypass the Constitution and the legislative process and legislate themselves, directly from the bench.

With May primaries fast approaching before November's midterm elections, these maps must be redrawn as quickly as possible. Democrats believe any appeals to the Supreme Court's decision will be unsuccessful since they filed a suit citing only the state constitution. 

R. Stanton Jones, also acting as a lawyer for the League of Women Voters, commented:

It’s well established that the United States Supreme Court does not review decisions of state court that exclusively construe state law, which is the exact situation you have here. When people talk about federalism, the concept of federalism, this is an important part of it. The United States Supreme Court doesn’t get to tell a state’s highest court what is state law, in this case Pennsylvania law.

Head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, former Attorney General Eric Holder, issued a statement:

This ruling is one more example of the courts telling Republican legislatures that drawing district lines for partisan purposes violates our democratic principles. What the Republican party has been doing diminishes the voting power of Americans and contributes to the polarization of our political system. This year, Pennsylvania voters can finally look forward to casting ballots under a fair and legal congressional map.