The four-member commission charged with the decennial redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative district boundaries has deadlocked on its pick for a fifth member to serve as its impartial chairman, which means the state Supreme Court will once again make the call.
The members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission sent a letter to the high court on Friday afternoon, which now has until May 30 to pick a chairman who can expect to spend a lot of time breaking ties among the commission’s partisan members, as they produce maps that will influence the balance of political power in Harrisburg for the next decade.
The announcement came just days after the commission held a series of public interviews with aspiring chairpeople who came from all walks of life.
“Over the past month-and-a half, we conducted a thorough and transparent process to vet candidates to serve as the fifth member of the Commission,” the panel wrote to Chief Justice Max Baer. “We received many qualified applicants and held a series of hearings over two days to interview the candidates. The candidates came from all over the Commonwealth with diverse and interesting backgrounds. While we were unable to find consensus on one individual to serve as chair, we were thoroughly impressed by the field of applicants who came forth to testify.”
But, the commission said that it had “collectively decided through this interview process, there are certain criteria that should be considered when selecting the chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission,” the letter reads.
Commission members set down some specific criteria for the new chairperson, arguing that the eventual pick should be a “fair and neutral arbiter of this process, essentially a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes.”
In addition, “a qualified candidate should have some distance from the political process. While running for public office should not disqualify someone to serve, a chair should be several years removed from engaging in the political process.
“Similarly, a strong candidate should not have been recently engaged in lobbying efforts at any level of government,” the commission members wrote to Baer.
Doing so, they argued, “will ensure the chair of the Commission will come into this process dissociated from partisan politics. Finally, the chair should have no interest in nor intention of running for an office in a district drawn by the Commission.”
While undoubtedly disappointing to the more than 40 applicants who appeared before the panel on Monday and Tuesday, the news was not without precedent. The commission charged with redrawing maps in 2011 similarly deadlocked, and turned the choice over to the high court.
The 4 members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission could not agree on an impartial chair, despite many capable, qualified candidates. The choice now goes to @PASupremeCt. https://t.co/y0fJNWG6mN pic.twitter.com/0AKeQEeYFh
— Fair Districts PA (@FairDistrictsPA) April 30, 2021
Unlike past redistricting cycles, however, the 7-member court now has a progressive majority, which could augur well for the panel’s two Democratic members: House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, and Minority Leader Jay Costa, of Allegheny County. The commission is balanced out by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.
If past is prologue, the high court will likely fall back on a retired judge to oversee the once-a-decade redrawing of the 253 seats in the House and Senate. At least two of the candidates who appeared before the commission earlier this week had judicial pedigrees.
While the proceedings are usually marked by high-flown language about transparency and fairness, partisan politics will inevitably color what is, at its heart, a partisan process.
Democratic operatives already are looking to the high court, which has had its progressive majority since 2015, for favorable treatment.
“This year we’ll have an improved Supreme Court of Pennsylvania appointing the tie breaking vote to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee chief Jessica Post wrote in a March memo. ”That means Democrats will be competing on fair maps in the Keystone State for the first time in well over a decade.”
The line between a “fair” line and a Democratic gerrymander could be slim, but party operatives privately have argued that any move away from the current maps likely will help Democrats gain control of at least one legislative chamber for the first time since 2010, the Capital-Star reported in March.
Read the full text of the commission’s letter below: