Pa. Supreme Court hears arguments on congressional districts

Because of slow population growth, Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 congressional seats in this redistricting cycle

By: - February 18, 2022 4:47 pm

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

After a deadlock between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly, Pennsylvania’s highest court heard arguments in the case that will determine what the state’s congressional lines look like for the next decade.

The already politically-charged redistricting process has been particularly contentious this year. Delays with the U.S. Census data tightened the timeline for drawing district lines. And a temporary suspension of the petition circulating period for candidates to get on the ballot, as the May 17 election deadline looms, has left much unknown until the court picks a map.

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation is currently split 9-9, and the final map could decide political campaigns before they start. Because of slow population growth, the state will lose one of its 18 congressional seats in this redistricting cycle.

And on Friday, the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court — now begrudgingly part of the redistricting process — asked attorneys for legislative Democrats and Republicans, the governor, good government groups, and Pennsylvania voters to outline why their proposals are the best choice.

“I really think we have superb advocacy by everybody from top to bottom,” Chief Justice Max Baer said, following nearly five hours of court arguments focused on minimizing splits and addressing partisan fairness. “Now, it’s our turn to do the very best we can.”

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, who was appointed as an adviser in the case after hearing arguments for proposals earlier this month, recommended the high court select the map approved by Republican-controlled Legislature and vetoed by Wolf, who called it “highly skewed.”

The state’s highest court can choose any of the proposals submitted in the case, make changes, or draw a different map.

In 2018, the high court tossed the state’s congressional map and redrew the lines after challengers said it benefitted the GOP.

After vetoing the proposal lawmakers sent to his desk, Wolf introduced a new map and said he wanted to draw congressional lines without gerrymandering — giving preference to one political party over another.

Wolf’s proposal splits Pittsburgh, a choice the justices questioned on Friday. Robert Wiygul, who represents Wolf in the case, said it’s possible to minimize splits and ensure districts are compact and maintain communities of interest.

“Redistricting is not just a once-in-a-decade exercise,” Wiygul told the justices, adding that ensuring voters have representation in government is the overall goal. “It is an event with profound consequences for the health of our democracy.”

Attorneys for House and Senate Republicans, including Anthony Holtzman and Robert Tucker, urged the court to accept McCullough’s recommendation and adopt the map from the General Assembly, which went through a lengthy public comment process.

The map has a Republican lean, including splits in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, and sees that no Republican incumbent is in the same district as another Republican incumbent.

Both Holtzman and Tucker highlighted the months-long public comment period leading up to the final vote on the General Assembly’s congressional map, saying that the steps to draft it make it stand out from the other proposals.

Asked by the court about whether there were attempts to reach a bipartisan agreement on drawing a congressional map, Holtzman said there were efforts to negotiate with the governor.

“But does that matter?” Justice Kevin Brobson replied, saying that the Legislature’s map does not help the court decide which proposal to choose.

The court also heard from attorneys for Common Cause, a good government group, and Draw the Lines, a redistricting advocacy group. Draw the Lines’s map submission, attorney John Lavelle, Jr. said, “is the product of unprecedented and extensive public participation.”

The map, he added, reflects input from more than 7,000 Pennsylvanian citizen mappers.

A map proposed by a group of citizens from Butler County does not split Pittsburgh. Thomas King III, who is representing them in the case, recommended a map submitted by U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th district, as an alternative option for the court, if not his clients’ proposal.

While still advocating for their clients’ proposals, some attorneys in the case also looked to the map from the General Assembly as an alternative for the court, again noting the public comment period and drawing process.

“We are here for one reason and one reason only — political failure,” Kathleen Gallagher, an attorney representing a group of voters, told the court. “The political part of the equation failed the voters of this commonwealth. And as a result, it’s now at your door, or on your bench.”

Gallagher urged the justices to “take your own advice, and look at what you did in [2018], and you pick the map that sticks.”

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