The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:28 p.m. 3/16/22 with additional information on the order and at 8:25 with comment from House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the commonwealth’s new legislative maps Wednesday, locking in new district lines for the next decade that could dramatically change the look of at least one chamber of the General Assembly.
The 4-page order found that the new lines, approved in a bipartisan 4-1 vote last month, are constitutional, and dismissed nine separate challenges to the proposed House and Senate plans. The maps will be used until 2032.
In an accompanying order, the court gave state legislative candidates from Friday, March 18 to Monday, March 28 to collect signatures to qualify for the May 17 primary ballot, ending state legislative candidate’s holding pattern.
The unsigned orders did not include an opinion. All seven court justices, five liberal and two conservative, agreed with the decision.
The new lines, drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, have been a subject of controversy.
In particular, the new state House map significantly redrew the lines around such eastern Pennsylvania cities as Lancaster, Harrisburg, Reading, and Allentown.
Commission Chairperson Mark Nordenberg said the redraw was needed to match the shift of state population from west to east, to undo decades of gerrymandering, and expand minority communities’ voice in the General Assembly.
At the same time, the new plan is more compact and reduces the number of county and municipal splits compared to the current map, drawn by a Republican-friendly commission in 2012.
“It is often said that there is no such thing as a perfect plan, and the Supreme Court has never held the Commission to the standard of perfection or required that the Commission produce the best possible plan on all available metrics,” Nordenberg said in a 78-page final report on the process. “However, the Commission’s plan is a very good plan, one that was approved by a majority of the Commission that had worked diligently to create it and one that has received praise from many quarters.”
The lines will also give Democrats more safe seats in the lower chamber, although their odds of winning a majority this year are uncertain. In a statement, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said that the ruling was “welcomed validation of the [commission’s] respect for the law and very hard work,” and that the resulting maps “will help reverse a generation of gerrymandered legislative districts and protect the right of the people to fair and equal representation in state government.”
The new maps will help reverse a generation of gerrymandered legislative districts and protect the right of the people to fair and equal representation in state government.
Among the plan’s biggest critics is House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, who argued in a filing with the Supreme Court that the map was an unconstitutional partisan and racial gerrymander.
On the latter point, Benninghoff received backing from Latino advocates who argued that the lines unfairly divided their communities in the process of creating more seats that give Black and Latino candidates chances to win state office.
In a legal brief last week, two Latino advocacy groups disputed Benninghoff’s argument that race should not play a role in drawing the lines.
However, those groups still called for a redraw of the map, particularly around Allentown, which was split into three House districts, rather than two.
The split diluted Latinos’ votes, the brief argued, and “is legally and morally unacceptable given the obstacles to voting that Latinos already face.”
In a statement Wednesday, Benninghoff decried the high court’s decision as partisan, and said that he was “continuing to examine the next steps in our remaining legal options and are not foreclosing any possibility to ensure Pennsylvanians get a fair plan that accurately reflects them in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.”
Republicans were also critical of the number of Republican-on-Republican primaries the new map set up, though Nordenberg argued it was a product of geography and population shifts, not malice.
One GOP lawmaker drawn into a primary and into a much bluer district, state Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, announced his retirement in a statement minutes after the court’s decision.
“I’m not concerned about my own future, but I am mindful that my friends and neighbors are having their voice[s] diluted,” Lewis said.
The Senate portion of the map was less controversial. Unlike the House map — which was mostly drawn by Nordenberg and his staff, based on suggestions from Benninghoff and McClinton — the Senate map was a compromise between the chamber’s two leaders.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said he was pleased with the result.
“I supported this map because I believe it is representative and gives Pennsylvanians a fair voice in their state government, and I’m excited to see the electoral process begin this year,” Costa added.
The map’s final approval kicks off a long-awaited, 10- day sprint for state legislative candidates to get on the ballot. Statewide and congressional candidates have already handed in petitions to the Department of State.
This is the state Supreme Court’s second redistricting ruling; they also picked a congressional map last month.
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