Pennsylvania legislative leaders meet Supreme Court deadline for new district maps

FILE - Pennsylvania State Capitol

After a week spent wondering if Pennsylvania’s legislative leaders would be able to meet deadline to submit a new legislative map to the governor, the map has arrived.

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai sent the new map to Gov. Tom Wolf late on Friday with the clock ticking down.

“This map took into account information provided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in their majority opinion, which we received two days ago,” they wrote in a joint letter to the governor. “We have also submitted the attached data and documents to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

All this hand-wringing and anticipation comes in the aftermath of a ruling Jan. 22 by the state Supreme Court that said that Pennsylvania’s Congressional map was unconstitutional. The existing map was deemed to be a product of gerrymandering, a process by which one party or another draws legislative boundaries in such a way as to protect their own majority.

The practice of gerrymandering is seen as widespread across the U.S. and used by both Democratic and Republican majorities in a number of statehouses. Pennsylvania’s map was seen as particularly egregious because of a number of districts that can be described as contiguous only in a technical sense, with largely separate neighborhoods and towns connected by narrow passages in order, critics say, to protect incumbent legislators.

The Republican leaders noted a number of changes to the map intended to comply with the court’s ruling, including:

  • The map minimizes split counties.
  • Districts are more contiguous and compact.
  • Has only 15 split counties, vs. 28 in the prior map.
  • Has only 17 split municipalities, vs. 68 in the prior map.
  • Keeps 68.8 percent of voters in their previous districts “in order to avoid confusion among the general public.”
  • Complies with the Voting Rights Act and “concerns recently expressed by the NAACP.”

Pennsylvania’s Republican leaders tried to appeal the state Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Justice Samuel Alito, who had the responsibility of reviewing the petition, declined Feb. 5 to hear the case.

There has also been some question in recent days whether a map submitted by Scarnati and Turzai, without a vote in the Legislature, was sufficient to meet the terms of the state Supreme Court’s ruling. With time short and Wednesday’s House session canceled because of weather, the possibility of the entire body approving a new map by Feb. 9 was a longshot at best, leaving the Republican leaders little choice but to send the map without their fellow legislators’ official support.

If Wolf accepts the map, he in turn has until Feb. 15 to send it to the state Supreme Court.

“While the Court’s order did not appear to allow for two individuals to draw a map on behalf of the entire General Assembly, Governor Wolf will review Speaker Turzai and President Scarnati’s submission in consultation with the experts retained by the administration to determine his next course of action,” Wolf’s press secretary, J.J. Abbott, said in a statement.

The high court has said that if the map does not meet their standard of constitutionality, the justices reserve the right to draw up a map on their own. Pennsylvania Republicans, for their part, have indicated that they are still considering what other legal options they might have.

“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,” Scarnati and Turzai said in a Feb. 5 statement.

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