Pennsylvania GOP Leader Refuses Court Order to Turn Over Gerrymandering Data
By Jonathan Lai
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said Wednesday he would not turn over any data requested by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the wake of the gerrymandering ruling that Republicans have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review.
Last week, the state high court ruled that Pennsylvania's congressional map was the product of unconstitutional gerrymandering and ordered the General Assembly to submit files "that contain the current boundaries of all Pennsylvania municipalities and precincts" by noon Wednesday.
In a letter to the court, lawyers for Scarnati, a Jefferson Republican, said he would not do so, repeating an argument they have made in the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court: The state court is overstepping its authority.
"In light of the unconstitutionality of the Court's Orders and the Court's plain intent to usurp the General Assembly's constitutionally delegated role of drafting Pennsylvania's congressional districting plan, Sen. Scarnati will not be turning over any data identified in the Court's Orders," the lawyers wrote.
While Scarnati's lawyers said in a footnote that the senator does not actually have the requested data, the refusal signals that Scarnati will not comply with any future requests that could help the court draw its own map, said Drew Crompton, the Senate Republicans' top lawyer.
"They are trying to ready themselves to draw maps," Crompton said, "and Senator Scarnati believes they don't have the power to do that and we shouldn't help them in that effort."
Republican lawmakers, including Scarnati, have said the court order does not give them enough time to draw a new map, especially because the justices did not provide a full opinion when they released the order overturning the map. By imposing a tight timeline with little guidance, the Republicans argue, the court sets them up to fail, clearing the way for the justices to draw their own map.
By late Wednesday, nine days after its order overturning the map, the court had not yet released a promised opinion explaining what makes the current map unconstitutional. Without it, Republican lawmakers say, they are wary of drawing new congressional districts that could be struck down.
Scarnati's letter was one of several filed Wednesday as the parties responded to a court order requesting maps and data.
In a separate filing, a lawyer for the General Assembly wrote that lawmakers do not have the requested map files showing the current municipal boundaries because they are produced only once a decade as part of the redistricting process.
"The General Assembly and its Legislative Data Processing Center do not maintain ESRI shape files that contain current boundaries of all Pennsylvania municipalities and precincts," the letter reads, directing the court instead to the state website that hosts files with the 2011 boundaries.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, did not have any data to submit, his lawyer said.
In declaring the state's congressional map an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, the state high court ordered a new map redrawn in time for the primary election in May. It gave the General Assembly less than three weeks to approve a new map, then have it signed by Gov. Tom Wolf. If that does not happen, the justices said in their order, they would adopt their own boundaries.
Days later, the court issued another order, announcing it had retained Stanford University professor Nathaniel Persily as an adviser and requesting the current municipal boundaries from the General Assembly. It also requested the parties submit maps and technical data used in expert testimony. Lawyers for the plaintiffs _ 18 Democratic voters from across the state _ submitted their maps and data Wednesday, as did a lawyer for Lt. Gov. Mike Stack. Other parties, including Wolf, said they did not have any data to provide.
Scarnati and Turzai have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state court ruling, arguing that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the power to run elections. By saying it would intervene and draw its own map, the lawmakers wrote, the state high court takes that power from the Legislature. The court has not officially agreed to consider the case, but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. has requested a response from the plaintiffs by 4 p.m. Friday.
In the meantime, lawmakers have taken the initial steps toward drawing new lines.
A "shell bill," essentially an empty document that repeals the previous map, passed the state Senate this week and was moved to the House. Legislators hope to amend it later to insert a new map, but they moved the empty bill because of the tight deadline and rules requiring that bills be considered for a certain amount of time.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said caucus leaders had not yet had productive discussions about a new map because legislators still are awaiting the court's opinion. The current map was adopted in 2011, and Republican lawmakers have said they are wary of redrawing it without receiving guidance on what the court found specifically to be unconstitutional.
"Until we do, there's no sense sitting down having discussions," Corman said Monday, "or else we could be just drawing another map that they think is unconstitutional."
The court order gives lawmakers until Feb. 9 to pass a new map and send it to Wolf, who has until Feb. 15 to sign it. Wolf has been holding "listening sessions" this week to gather public input on redistricting.
(Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this report.)
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