The Lead

Pa. court rejects GOP request to use old legislative lines in midterm; more challenges pending

By: - February 25, 2022 1:54 pm

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has denied a preemptive request from Pennsylvania House Republicans seeking to block new legislative lines this year, and instead use the state’s current map in the upcoming midterm election.

The one-page, unsigned order is not the end of the legal debate on new boundaries for the state’s 253 House and Senate districts. A separate challenge from House Republicans challenging the districts is still pending before the court, arguing that the map is unconstitutional. 

But it marks an early win for the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which drew the lines, and its effort to offer a near-complete overhaul of the commonwealth’s maps.

The final map was passed 4-1 earlier this month, with only House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, opposing the plan. 

This approval came later than usual due to Census data delays and partisan disputes over how to count people in prison and the lines themselves. As such, legislative candidates still cannot collect signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Given the delay, Benninghoff asked for the old lines to be reused in a Feb. 17 emergency application for relief to the state Supreme Court, citing “the dual realities of this plan’s significant legal challenges and the need to have certainty in the conduct of the 2022 elections”

Pa. House Republicans ask court to toss proposed legislative maps, reuse current lines in 2022

In a filing opposing Benninghoff’s request, the commission pointed out that the new map is superior when it comes to such basic redistricting criteria as municipal and county splits.

For instance, the new House plan splits five fewer counties and 23 fewer municipalities than the current map, drawn by a GOP-controlled commission in 2012, commission counsel Robert Byer argued in a filing to the Supreme Court this week. 

Until there is a final ruling on the new map’s overall constitutionality, Byer argued, the request should be “denied as premature.”

“In the unlikely event that this Court determines the 2022 Final Plan to be contrary to law, the court can determine the appropriate remedy at that time,” Byer added.

Still unaddressed are Benninghoff’s specific objections to the map itself.

The final maps, particularly in the House, attempted to shift lines to give minority communities more districts in which they could elect the representative of their choice, and sought to undo years of gerrymandering that has favored incumbents.

The commission’s chairperson, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, picked by the state Supreme Court after legislative leaders deadlocked on a chair, led the effort. He has argued that the resulting district lines are responsive and reflective of the state’s partisan and racial diversity.

This was accomplished in splitting a number of central Pennsylvania cities, such as Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Reading, creating new Democratic districts that could be won by a Black, Latino or Asian candidate. 

Overall, the maps are also projected to help Democrats gain seats, although not a full majority, in the 203-member lower chamber.

Where to draw the lines in Black, Latino communities at center of Pa. legislative map fight

These city divisions, Benninghoff has argued, are both a partisan and racial gerrymander — a charge a few community members have echoed, and others strongly opposed. This challenge is still pending before the state Supreme Court, which is accepting filings on the map until March 6.

At least one other challenge from a handful of Butler County residents has been filed. But in a text message earlier this week, one Latino advocate backtracked on his earlier promise of legal action. 

Lehigh Valley radio station owner and show host Victor Martinez told the Capital-Star he was focusing on recruiting candidates in the new lines, and would let “the current lawsuits play out.”

These lawsuits are separate from the legal actions that decided the state’s congressional map. 

On Wednesday, the court picked the Carter plan, in which Democratic attorney Marc Elias had argued in favor. 

Pa. Supreme Court court picks national Dems’ map as new congressional plan

That pick shaded House Republicans’ response to the decision.

“Given that four liberal justices — a majority of the court — just took marching orders from national Democrats in selecting a partisan Congressional map, it is not surprising they would be greasing the skids for their hand-picked partisan Chairman,” Benninghoff spokesperson Jason Gottesman said on Twitter.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.