Political News

Supreme Court won't block new Pennsylvania voting maps

Posted March 19, 2018 5:25 p.m. EDT
Updated March 19, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT

— The Supreme Court rejected Monday a second emergency application from Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania seeking to overturn decisions from that state’s highest court, which had ruled that Pennsylvania’s congressional map had been warped by partisan gerrymandering and then imposed one of its own.

The ruling means a new map drawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will very likely be in effect in this year’s elections, setting the stage for possible gains by Democrats. Under the current map, Republicans hold 12 seats while Democrats hold five and are expected to pick up another when the result of a special election last week is certified.

The latest application was denied by the full Supreme Court without comment or noted dissents.

In a terse ruling in January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s congressional map, saying that it “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state’s constitution. The court told state lawmakers to redraw the state’s 18 House districts, which favored Republicans.

Pennsylvania Republicans asked the Supreme Court to block that ruling, but their request was rejected last month by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The Republican-controlled state legislature then drew a new map, but it was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. The state court imposed a new map, prepared with the help of Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and an expert in legislative districting. The court said the map’s voting districts were not warped by politics and “follow the traditional redistricting criteria of compactness, contiguity, equality of population and respect for the integrity of political subdivisions.”

The denial of the latest application, like the denial of the earlier one, was unsurprising because the Pennsylvania court had based its rulings solely on the state constitution. On matters of state law, the judgments of state supreme courts are typically final.

The Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania case argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could nonetheless step in, saying their case was partly governed by federal law. They pointed to Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which says that the times, places and manners of congressional elections “shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.”

The lawmakers said the state Supreme Court had usurped the legislature’s role in violation of federal law. That argument did not appear to gain traction with Alito.

In a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to intercede, lawyers for Wolf wrote that there were practical reasons to let the state court’s rulings stand. “A stay at this point,” they wrote, “will force the congressional primaries to be rescheduled at an estimated cost of $20 million, or canceled entirely.”

Hours before the Supreme Court issued its order, a panel of three federal judges rejected a third and quite similar challenge to the state Supreme Court’s map from Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state Senate. The panel of two U.S. district judges and one federal court of appeals judge said the Republican senators did not have standing to sue.

While further court challenges are possible, Monday’s decisions make it very likely that this year’s congressional elections in Pennsylvania will be conducted using the new map, which will help Democrats.

The Supreme Court has been intensely engaged with the question of partisan gerrymandering, in which the party in power draws voting districts to give its candidates lopsided advantages, in cases this term from Wisconsin and Maryland. Those cases are appeals from decisions of federal courts.