While much of the political world's attention Monday was focused on whether Congress would figure a way to reopen the government, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed Democrats a big win. The court has ordered the GOP-controlled legislature to draw a new map by February 15, in time for the 2018 elections, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will certainly veto any new gerrymander if Republicans attempt to pass one.
Pennsylvania's congressional district lines also are being challenged in federal court in a process that could lead to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court's five Democratic members said the congressional map "clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania". That state's map is so aggressively gerrymandered that Republicans won 13 of the state's 18 congressional districts in 2012, despite the fact that Democrats won a majority of the popular vote - and Republicans have held those districts ever since.
The suit, originally brought by the League of Women Voters, contended that "in 2011 Pennsylvania elected officials manipulated the congressional district boundaries to entrench a Republican delegation in Congress and minimize the ability of Democrats voters to elect U.S. House representatives".
Earlier this month, Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Mike Stack, a defendant in the case, proposed a new map that was drawn using nonpartisan algorithms. That puts Pennsylvania among the ranks of the most gerrymandered states in the country. The nation's high court already halted a decision from a three-judge federal court panel that ordered North Carolina's Republican-drawn Congressional map reconfigured. "Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District has been described as 'Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.' The 12th District could be mistaken for the boot of Italy".
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"It's well established that the United States Supreme Court does not review decisions of state force that exclusively construe state law", attorney Stanton Jones said. The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked that ruling while it considers similar complaints from Wisconsin and Maryland. Last week, a North Carolina court struck down the partisan gerrymandering in that state.
The plaintiffs had argued the map violates the Pennsylvania Constitution's guarantees of free expression and equal protection.
The Governor must then submit the revised plan back to the state Supreme Court by February 15. The court also announced that it will release a full opinion at a future time.
Justice Max Baer agreed the map was unconstitutional but said the rush to draw new district boundaries would disrupt the May primaries.
The March 13 special election in a vacant southwestern Pennsylvania seat is unaffected by the order, the justices said.