Supreme Court Denies Request to Halt Pennsylvania Redistricting

Current map was thrown out on partisan gerrymandering grounds

The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday about a law that required federal courts to dismiss lawsuits related to a Michigan land tract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday about a law that required federal courts to dismiss lawsuits related to a Michigan land tract. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:11pm

The Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from Pennsylvania state lawmakers to halt a redrawing of congressional districts for the 2018 primary and general elections. The state’s Supreme Court had thrown out the current map last month, ruling that it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

The decision means Pennsylvania will have a new congressional map for the upcoming midterm elections. The primaries are scheduled for May 15.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issued the one-line announcement Monday. He did not explain why he denied the request from the Pennsylvania Republicans.

Plaintiffs in the redistricting case had been optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court would deny the request, since the state Supreme Court ruled the map violated the state — not the federal — constitution.

“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,” R. Stanton Jones, a partner at Arnold & Porter and lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement Monday. “Pennsylvania voters will now get to cast their ballots in fair elections this year.”

Jones and his firm represented the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and several Democratic voters in the case.

A state issue

The state Supreme Court ruled that the GOP-controlled state General Assembly has until Feb. 9 to develop a new map, which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf must approve by Feb. 15.

If the legislature and the governor cannot agree on new congressional boundaries, the court will adopt a new map based on evidence presented in the case. The court allowed “all parties and intervenors” to submit proposed redistricting plans by Feb. 15. 

The state court’s ruling did not apply to the upcoming March 13 special election to fill the 18th District seat left open by GOP Rep. Tim Murphy’s resignation last year.

The new map could help Democrats, who are outnumbered in the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans hold 12 of the state’s 18 districts, not counting Murphy’s vacant seat. But the new map also has to meet a number of requirements set by the state Supreme Court. 

Watch: The Many Ways to draw a Gerrymander

Loading the player...

The court ruled the new districts must be “composed of compact and contiguous territory,” be as equal in population as possible, and not divide “any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”

The new map could lead to a scrambling among lawmakers and candidates ahead of the March 20 filing deadline. Redistricting sometimes leads to two sitting lawmakers being drawn into the same district.  

Democratic hopes

Pennsylvania is expected to be a key state in the House Democrats’ push to flip 24 seats to retake the chamber. Democrats were already targeting six Republican-held seats in the Keystone State, with three of the top targets in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

One of those seats is already open. GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan announced last month he would not run for re-election in the 7th District amid allegations of sexual harassment. Meehan has denied any wrongdoing. 

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales shifted the 7th District race rating from Leans Republican to Tilts Democratic, while noting that handicapping the contest was difficult without knowing the new lines.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some Republicans in the state were discussing “sacrificing” Meehan’s district, or allowing the 7th to become more Democratic to help nearby Republicans keep their seats. Neighboring GOP Reps. Ryan A. Costello in the 6th District and Brian Fitzpatrick in the 8th are both Democratic targets this year.

Democrats also have their eyes on Republican Lloyd K. Smucker in the 16th District and the seats being vacated by GOP Reps. Lou Barletta and Charlie Dent. Republicans are only targeting one of the state’s five Democrats, Matt Cartwright in the 17th District. President Donald Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections

The redistricting process also prompted longtime Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Robert A. Brady to announce his retirement last week. He was already facing a handful of primary challengers amid a federal campaign finance investigation. Aides to the longtime congressman had allegedly bribed a 2012 primary challenger to leave the race. 

Brady insisted that he would not have been charged in the case, and his decision to retire was not related to the probe. He said he knew state lawmakers were already discussing the new map, and he did not want them to account for his residency since he was considering retiring. Even with new lines, Brady’s newly open seat in Philadelphia is likely to remain in Democratic hands. 

Todd Ruger contributed to this report.