No easy answers after Supreme Court tosses PA redistricting map
Pippy’s retirement will complicate attempts to fix maps
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — As Pennsylvania embarks on uncharted political territory, Republicans want to correct the unconstitutional parts of the new state House and Senate maps before the primary election.
But Democrats say the legislative maps from 2001 should remain in place to allow more time for new districts to be drawn.
Later this week, the state Supreme Court is expected to direct the state Legislative Reapportionment Commission to correct the new legislative maps. The five-member panel is charged with drawing new House and Senate districts every 10 years to reflect population changes.
Last week, the court ruled that the commission’s plan was “contrary to law” in a 4-3 decision that sends the new maps back to the drawing board. Details on what the court believes should be changed will be clearer after the formal decision is made public later this week.
The fundamental question for the commission is whether the corrections can be made before the state’s April 24 primary election. If not, the district lines drawn in 2001 will remain for this year’s election cycle.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said he is not waiting for the Supreme Court to clarify the extent to which the maps must be redrawn.
On Monday, he sent a letter to Commission Chairman Stephen McEwen, a retired state Superior Court judge, asking that the corrections not be rushed.
“This is the only way forward that will avoid any further doubt and disruption among the voters,” Dermody wrote. “Any new map must be subject to public hearings and input before it is placed before the Supreme Court.”
Republicans want to get the new districts corrected and approved quickly.
“It should not be anyone’s goal for this year’s elections to be held in the 2001 lines, which clearly disenfranchise voters throughout the state and do not proportionately represent the population shifts,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said. “We need clear and timely guidance from the Supreme Court, so we can move forward.”
In an interview with Capitolwire last week, so far the only glimpse into the court’s decision-making process, Justice Max Baer said he expected the 2012 elections to follow the 2001 district lines.
Baer, a Democrat, voted against the plan.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said using the 2001 maps would be unconstitutional, because some districts have grown or shrunk by more than 30 percent in population since that time.
“That is exactly what the Supreme Court found violates our Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, because voters in smaller districts would have more influence over elections — and, as a result, more influence over policy decisions — than voters in larger districts,” he said.
‘Uncharted territory’ for the state
Under the current rules for redistricting in Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court never has thrown out new legislative maps and required them to be redrawn.
Joseph Del Sol, an attorney for the commission, said doing so was “uncharted territory."
Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican, joined the three Democratic justices in voting against the plan. Justice Thomas Saylor, one of the three Republicans who voted for the redistricting plan, is crafting the dissenting opinion.
If the commission cannot address the court’s requested changes and get the maps approved before the primary election, the new district lines would not go into effect until the 2014 state legislative elections.
Hopefully, the court will deliver clear guidelines that will allow the process to move ahead quickly and with limited political concerns, said Thomas Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.
“Drawing maps isn’t hard; it’s all the political concerns that make it difficult,” Baldino said.
The state Legislative Reapportionment Commission consists of Turzai, Dermody, Pileggi, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny and McEwen, a Republican, who was named by the Supreme Court to be chairman of the commission.
Monroe County seat a concern
When the commission goes back to the drawing board, the movement of a state Senate district
from Allegheny County to Monroe County could change, whether the court specifically highlights it or not.
The rejected plan would have moved the district of incumbent state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, from west to east. Even those who challenged the new Senate map in court said one seat from western Pennsylvania needed to move across the state to reflect population trends, but the debate was focused on which seat should be selected.
Brewster was the least senior member of the Democratic caucus, and Republicans controlled the redistricting process.
But Democrats made a push in the fall to have a Republican seat moved. Essentially, they argued that if the GOP was drawing the new maps, a Republican seat should be moved.
Last week, state Sen. John Pippy, R-Allegheny, announced that he would not run for re-election. The announcement came one day after the Supreme Court hearing on the new maps and added fuel to the Democrat’s fire regarding which seat should be removed from Allegheny County.
Costa said retirements should be a factor when deciding which district to move, and tradition has shown that retiring members’ districts are moved before those held by incumbents.
“Clearly, with Sen. Pippy’s announcement, it would (be) preferable to move District 37 rather than District 45,” Costa said. “This adjustment would allow the commission to meet its original goals and restore the integrity of the reapportionment process.”
Four state GOP senators have announced their retirements at the end of this term, but Pippy was the first from Allegheny County, which Republicans identified as the target for the removal of a Senate district due to population losses there.