Supreme Court Denies Pennsylvania GOP's Request to Delay New Voting Maps

by | February 6, 2018

By Jonathan Lai and Liz Navratil

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene Monday in a Pennsylvania gerrymandering case with national implications, denying Republican lawmakers' attempt to delay drawing a new congressional map and increasing the likelihood that the map will be redrawn in time for this year's midterm elections.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. denied the request for a stay of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order to make new district boundaries, leaving in place the ruling overturning the current map as unconstitutionally drawn to discriminate against Democrats.

But the Legislature's two highest-ranking Republicans signaled Monday that they might not be willing to give up their fight. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai of Allegheny issued a joint statement saying they would attempt to comply with the state Supreme Court's order to redraw congressional maps by Friday "but may be compelled to pursue further legal action in federal court."

The case has grown increasingly nasty and more political as important deadlines loom. If the Legislature doesn't pass a new map by Friday, or if Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf doesn't approve one by Feb. 15, the state Supreme Court has said it intends to select a map on its own, with help from an outside expert.

The maps will play a large role in whether Democrats can gain any ground in the House.

As Scarnati and Turzai defended the current map, under which Republicans have been elected to the same 13 seats in all three congressional races since its creation in 2011, a rank-and-file Republican issued a memo seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would seek the impeachment of the five Democratic justices who declared the maps unconstitutional.

"We're not going to sit on the sidelines," said GOP state Rep. Cris Dush of Jefferson, who circulated the memo.

It's unclear exactly how far that attempt will go. Dush said he expects to introduce legislation that will move quickly through committee. But House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana, Pa., said Republican leaders in the House had not yet discussed the effort.

News of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision was applauded by Democrats and by attorneys for voters who brought the suit.

Wolf said he felt the U.S. Supreme Court acted correctly. "Now, all parties must focus on getting a fair map in place," he said. "Gerrymandering is wrong, and we must correct errors of the past with the existing map."

Voters who brought the suit were thrilled, according to one of their attorneys, Mimi McKenzie. The decision Monday, she said, was "expected in some sense, but you never want to presume anything or take anything for granted."

If the Legislature wants to attempt to draw a new map, much work needs to be done in the coming days. Legislators have pushed through a "shell bill" into which they can insert a more detailed map when it's ready.

That bill was sitting Monday in the House State Government Committee, which was set to meet Tuesday. If the bill passes through the House committee Tuesday, the earliest it could pass through the Legislature would be Friday _ the deadline.

The odds that the state Supreme Court will end up selecting a map are growing higher, outside experts said.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said Republicans are "not going down easily, which sort of shows you how much is at stake for them, right?"

He added, "This could have a major impact on Republicans' chances of retaining control of the U.S. House come November."

Republican leaders attempted to get Justice David Wecht kicked off the case because of statements he made about redistricting in the past. Republicans also argued that another justice, Christine Donohue, needed to disclose more information so they could consider a similar motion to disqualify her votes. The legislators' lawyers filed a request Sunday asking for a hearing on the Wecht and Donohue requests.

Donohue, who like Wecht ran as a Democrat and was elected in 2015, denied the application for a hearing on whether she needed to make more disclosures. Wecht similarly declined Monday to recuse himself and denied a hearing in the filing made against him.

Others pointed out that Justice Sallie Mundy, who ran as a Republican and voted against the redrawing, previously received a donation from a political action committee tied to Scarnati, a donation she disclosed in a filing Monday as the donation appeared in the news.

Many of the caucuses in the Legislature have been working individually to draft maps they could present to others.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Centre Republican, said Monday that leaders hadn't had many meetings to discuss specifics of the maps. Corman said that leaders must decide whether they have the desire to try to draw a new one.

Republican lawmakers have accused the court essentially of setting up the Legislature to fail by giving it less than three weeks to redraw the congressional lines and not providing a full opinion in the case. The state high court's order had said an opinion would follow. Lawmakers hope that the opinion, explaining what the justices found to be unconstitutional in the current map, would provide some guidance on how a new one should look.

An opinion had not been released by late Monday, four days before the deadline for lawmakers to pass a new map.

"There is some thought that the Supreme Court is going to throw out anything we give them anyway, so what's the purpose of us going through all of this work to just have them throw it out?" Corman said. "I'm not saying we're not going to (draw a new map), but I'm just saying there is some thought of that."

(c)2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer