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Revised redistricting maps face barrage of appeals over their constitutionality

By   /   July 10, 2012  /   No Comments

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — The new versions of Pennsylvania’s legislative maps are subject to the same criticisms as the previous drafts: They split too many municipal boundaries, and they’ve been rigged to aid Republicans.

By Monday’s deadline, at least 10 appeals were filed questioning the constitutionality of the maps.

The new maps are slated to be used in 2014. Until then, voting districts will be determined by the lines defined in 2001.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission approved the new maps June 8, after re-drafting legislative districts when the state Supreme Court rejected the previous maps earlier this year. State law gives 30 days for petitioners to file appeals.

Now, before the court makes a decision on whether the new maps are constitutional, LRC and its counsel will draft answers to the appeals. Oral arguments will be heard September in Philadelphia, according to state Supreme Court documents.

The majority of new grievances center on Section 16, Article 2 of the Pennsylvania Constitution: “Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.”

Absolutely necessary, in the eyes of the LRC, meant 68 municipal splits in the House map as opposed to 108 in the rejected plan, and 37 political subdivisions in the Senate map, down from 58.

But those decreases were not enough for crusading cartographer Amanda Holt, who has filed another petition contesting the map’s constitutionality.

The Lehigh County resident made a previous appeal that formed the basis of the state Supreme Court’s rejection of previous plans earlier this year.

A piano teacher by trade, Holt’s efforts included drawing maps that showed multiple ways to reduce municipal splits.

She said drawing district lines is not a complicated process, if constitutional guidelines are the top priority.

“The commission seems to be unable or unwilling to put the constitution first in this process and to comply with what the constitution sets out as being the priorities in this process and has other factors that come in and seem to cloud their vision, making this a more cumbersome process than it needs to be,” Holt said.

The new maps, she said, still contain too many splits that don’t live up to the constitution’s definition. Some areas of concern include Allegheny, Cumberland, Delaware and Chester counties.

Holt also said Philadelphia County should have no ward splits. But all city wards except one are split into different districts, according to another petition for review filed earlier this month.

Holt’s second petition includes 13 other citizen plaintiffs from across the state, similarly aggrieved by seeing their townships and counties split up among multiple legislative districts.

Also joining onto Holt’s petition are four elected officials, including three county commissioners from Cumberland County and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Elizabeth Rogan.

When voted on in June, the maps passed with a 4-1 vote. The commission consists of: Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, and appointed Chairman Judge Stephen McEwen.

Costa was the lone vote against the plan. Before the final vote, Costa submitted new maps that showed a decrease in political subdivisions. But that was voted down 3-2.

Costa is now one of the plaintiffs in a petition filed by members of the Senate Democrat caucus. In addition to taking issue with splits, the appeal says the commission never met to address how to redraw the maps in accordance with the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pileggi, said the state Supreme Court’s majority opinion gave no specific benchmarks for how many subdivision splits were appropriate, among other parameters on compactness and population deviation.

“In developing its Revised Final Plan, the Commission very much responded to the direction from the Supreme Court to reduce the number of splits,” Arneson said in an email.

The new Senate map:

  • Eliminates divisions in Darby Borough and Upper Darby Township. The only remaining split municipalities are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which must be divided because of their population size.
  • Increases the number of whole counties from 39 to 42.

Arneson also said the ward splits in Philadelphia were drawn by Costa, comments that were shared by Pileggi during the committee’s last hearing.

Leaving 25 counties split was enough to trigger additional petitions, including one from nine Delaware County residents, that cited an alternate plan from state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, submitted in fall 2011.

Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro also filed an appeal Monday, taking particular issue with the divisions within the county. Shapiro, a Democrat, called the process “overt gerrymandering.” Gerrymandering refers to the practice of dividing a state into a large number of districts that benefit one party and a few districts that benefit the opposing party.

Shapiro said the county should be split into three Senate seats and a portion of a fourth based on population. But the new plan splits the county into six districts, none of which are encompassed in the state’s third-largest county with around 800,000 residents.

“It was done simply to get partisan political gain and an advantage of the Republicans at the polls, not to comply with the constitutional directive,” Shapiro said.

The latest proposed final map for Senate legislative districts, as drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Committee and approved on June 8.