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Court Redistricting Decision A History-Maker

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ordered that new congressional district lines be set by Feb. 19.

By Andrea Sears, Public News Service
For The Post Publications

HARRISBURG PA – Election law advocates claim the state Supreme Court’s ruling Monday (Jan. 22, 2018), which declared Pennsylvania’s map of congressional districts as unconstitutional, was the first of its kind in the nation.

In its decision the court ruled the map, last drawn in 2011 following the 2010 Census, discriminated against Democrats. Proponents successfully argued that Republicans have consistently held 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts, even though voter registration between the two political parties is somewhat evenly divided.

The court gave the state General Assembly until Feb. 9 (Friday) to submit a new redistricting plan to Gov. Tom Wolf. It also ordered a new district plan be approved and in place by Feb. 19 (Monday), in time for primary elections scheduled in May.

Whatever changes are made are likely to affect western Montgomery County municipalities in the state’s

  • 6th District, which includes Collegeville, Douglass, East Greenville, Limerick, Lower, Upper and West Pottsgrove, Lower Providence, New Hanover, Pennsburg, Perkiomen, Pottstown, Red Hill, Royersford, Schwenksville, and Trappe;
  • 7th District, which includes Perkiomen and Skippack; and
  • 8th District, which includes Green Lane, Lower and Upper Frederick, and Lower and Upper Salford.

Republicans in the state Senate say they will request a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling represents the first time a court has relied on general provisions of a state constitution to strike down district lines it considers as “gerrymandered,” or purposely drawn to favor one political party to the exclusion of others, according to Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

He thinks it’s a significant development. “It means there is now a potential second front in the war against partisan gerrymandering that there wasn’t before, that doesn’t depend on what the U.S. Supreme Court does,” Li explained. Moreover, he doubts the federal high court will have little, if any, reason to intervene.

“This is a decision that was solely based on the Pennsylvania Constitution, and provisions that actually predate the U.S. Constitution,” Li said. “So it’s really hard to see what basis (the Senate) would have for appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he points out.

Can the Monday ruling benefit other states facing gerrymandering claims? Li thinks so.

Many state constitutions have broader protections for electoral rights than the U.S. Constitution, so the ruling in the Pennsylvania court could serve as a model for other states, he said. Because “state courts often look to each other for guidance on how to handle issues where they have similar provisions, the Pennsylvania decision could be really persuasive and helpful to other courts,” according to Li.

Court Redistricting Decision A History-Maker

Photo from Google Images; infographic from the Pennsylvania court system

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