Pennsylvania Congressional Map Faces Supreme Court Call

Pennsylvania Congressional Map Faces Supreme Court Call

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court is facing a sensitive choice on whether to intervene in a partisan battle over Pennsylvania’s congressional map, a decision expected within days that could have considerable political and legal ramifications for the midterm elections.

With the state’s primary vote about three months away, Pennsylvania candidates and voters don’t know what their districts will look like, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the state’s map on Jan. 22.

A divided Pennsylvania high court said Republicans had unlawfully gerrymandered the districts to maximize the GOP’s power. That court gave state lawmakers just a few weeks to redraw the districts and said the court would do so if the legislature did not.

Republican state legislators have sought emergency intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a stay of the Pennsylvania court ruling. That would likely allow the current map to remain in place for the 2018 elections, in which control of the U.S. House is at stake.

Shaping the Debate
The battle over Pennsylvania’s congressional map has focused on whether Republicans illegally gerrymandered the state’s districts to maximize their political power. The seventh district is a flashpoint, stretching from rural Lancaster County to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Critics say raw partisanship produced the district’s shape, which has been described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The Supreme Court already is grappling with how and whether the Constitution restricts excessive partisanship in redistricting in cases from Wisconsin and Maryland. The eventual rulings are sure to have widespread impact.

But there’s a big difference with the Pennsylvania case: The state court based its ruling on the Pennsylvania Constitution, a move that would normally leave the U.S. Supreme Court with little room to intervene. Under the American system of federalism, state courts are the final word on matters of state law.

“For the Supreme Court to grant a stay now would be enormously aggressive,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who closely tracks redistricting matters.

But Pennsylvania Republican legislative leaders say their case is the rare exception that justifies Supreme Court intervention. They say the state court usurped the legislature’s power under the U.S. Constitution to set the “Times, Places and Manner” of congressional elections.

Among other things, GOP leaders cite the Supreme Court’s intervention in Bush v. Gore, the contentious case about Florida ballot-counting that effectively resolved the 2000 presidential election.


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Legal challengers to the Pennsylvania map, including the League of Women Voters and individual Democratic voters, filed a brief late Friday urging the high court to stay out of the case, saying “bedrock principles” make it clear the Supreme Court can’t review cases purely about state law.

While Pennsylvania voters are often closely divided between the parties, Republicans hold a 13-to-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation under the current map, which state GOP leaders enacted in 2011. Democrats are eyeing seats in Pennsylvania as part of their high-stakes effort to retake the U.S. House.

The Pennsylvania electoral landscape is becoming more uncertain by the day. Though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the map, it has yet to issue a full opinion explaining its reasons for finding the Republican-drawn districts unlawful.

One state justice who found the map illegal nevertheless said there wasn’t enough time to require a new map before the midterms because it “risks serious disruption of orderly state election processes and basic governmental functions.”

Elsewhere, Joe Scarnati, a leading GOP state senator, rebuffed a state Supreme Court order that requested certain election data in the event it is needed to draft the new districts. On Friday Mr. Scarnati and Pennsylvania’s Republican House speaker, Mike Turzai, asked the state Supreme Court to vacate its order and disqualify one of its justices, citing anti-gerrymandering statements the justice made when seeking election to his seat.

Changing Lines

Pennsylvania’s congressional district boundaries before and after state Republicans re-drew the lines in the wake of the last census.


The 112th Congress, from Jan. 2011 to Jan. 2013


The 113th Congress, from Jan. 2013 to Jan. 2015

U.S. Geological Survey

If the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t intervene, Republican leaders will have to scramble to craft new districts ahead of the state high court’s Feb. 9 deadline, rather than leave it to the state justices, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for Republican House Majority Leader Dave Reed.

“We obviously would like to try and comply and, if need be, draw those new maps,” he said, adding that the state high court must first issue a detailed opinion explaining its ruling. “Until you get that guidance, you’re drawing hypotheticals,” he said.

New districts would need the approval of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with the GOP-led state legislature since he took office in 2015.

The court’s two-page order issued Jan. 22 offered some pointers. It said new districts must consist of “compact and contiguous territory,” must have as close to the same population “as practicable,” and can’t divide towns, cities or counties except where necessary to ensure population equality.

The ruling and the pushback from Republicans have created confusion, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.

Candidates and prospective candidates are “kind of in limbo right now because they don’t know what their district is,” Mr. Borick said. “The district could be moved out from under you.” Members of the U.S. House aren’t required to live in their district, but it would be politically fraught to run as a nonresident, he said.

Pennsylvania congressional races this year are expected to attract more candidates than usual, he said: At least five seats will be open, as incumbents retire or seek higher office. In addition, the winner of a March 13 special election for the seat vacated last year by Republican Rep. Tim Murphy will have to face voters again in November, perhaps with new district boundaries.

The state court ruling has already resulted in a delay of the three-week period in which would-be congressional candidates must gather 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot. It was to start Feb. 13, and no new date has been set.

Write to Brent Kendall at and Scott Calvert at

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