POLITICS
02/05/2018 12:37 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2018

Supreme Court Won't Let Pennsylvania GOP Delay Drawing New Congressional Map

Legal experts saw the GOP appeal to the Supreme Court as a long shot.

Top Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania suffered another defeat on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court denied their request to delay drawing a new congressional map ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s congressional map gave Republicans such a clear political advantage that it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave Republican lawmakers about three weeks to redraw the map, and said the court would redraw the map itself if the lawmakers failed to agree on one with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D).

Hinting that there weren’t federal questions at stake, the Pennsylvania justices wrote the Pennsylvania Constitution was the “sole basis” for their decision.

Pennsylvania Republicans appealed the state court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the U.S. Constitution only granted legislatures, not state courts, the power to draw congressional districts. They also said an entirely new congressional map would cause chaos in the system’s election process, set to begin at the end of February. Pennsylvania’s top election official says they can run the election in a timely manner with a new map in place.

Their request went before Justice Samuel Alito, who oversees the 3rd Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania. Alito denied the request on Monday without referring it to the whole court.

“This was always a Pennsylvania state court case about Pennsylvania’s Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court rightly refused the Republican Legislative leaders’ attempt to manufacture a federal issue,” said R. Stanton Jones, a partner at Arnold & Porter, which helped represent the plaintiffs: 18 Democratic voters from each of the state’s congressional districts. “Pennsylvania voters will now get to cast their ballots in fair elections this year.”

Wolf, who was named as a defendant in the suit but supported the challenge to the state’s congressional map, praised the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court gave him and lawmakers until Feb. 15 to come up with an agreement on a congressional map.

“The U.S. Supreme Court correctly recognized that there is no reason to delay implementing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order. Now, all parties must focus on getting a fair map in place,” he said in a statement. “Gerrymandering is wrong and we must correct errors of the past with the existing map. My team is ready, willing and able to work with the General Assembly to ensure a new map is fair and within the clear orders given by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

Judd Irish Bradley via Getty Images

Legal experts saw the GOP appeal to the Supreme Court as a long shotbecause the case involved a challenge to Pennsylvania’s congressional map solely under the state’s constitution, not the federal one. In a 2015 case from Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that an independent commission could draw congressional districts, recognizing that state legislatures were not the sole bodies with control over the redistricting process.

In a joint statement, Pennsylvania House Speaker Michael Turzai (R) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R) were defiant, saying they still did not believe the state’s congressional map was illegal. They said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had “handicapped” Alito by failing to provide a full opinion to accompany its order to redraw the state’s congressional map. 

“It is astounding that fourteen days after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the map to be unconstitutional, the Justices have still not issued a majority opinion. This irresponsible approach handicapped Justice Alito by not providing him with more information, just as it has handicapped the Legislature,” they said in the statement.

The top Republicans added they would “do [their] best” to come up with a new map by the court’s imposed deadline, but “may be compelled to pursue further legal action in federal court.”

The ruling from the high court ended Republicans’ last pending legal appeal on redrawing the state’s map, but Republicans in the state may not be done fighting. Scarnati has indicated he won’t comply with a court order to hand over information to assist the court in drawing the map because he believes it’s unlawful.

The Brennan Center for Justice has described the Pennsylvania congressional map as one of the worst gerrymanders in the country. Controlling the redistricting process in 2011, Republicans drew a congressional map that gave them a considerable advantage. In every election since that map was implemented, Republicans have won 13 of 18 congressional seats, despite winning just about 50 percent of the vote.

This story has been updated with comments from Gov. Tom Wolf, R. Stanton Jones, Michael Turzai and Joe Scarnati. 

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