Constitutional crisis? Pennsylvania Senate president pro tempore defies court order

Would you go to jail to protect gerrymandered Congressional districts? That’s a question that a Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania may soon be facing.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week struck down the state’s congressional map and ordered the state’s governor and legislators to draw a new one for submission to the Court. In a separate order a few days later, the Court asked state lawmakers to submit data as part of a process of drawing a new map that would pass state constitutional muster.

But Joseph Scarnati, the Republican Senate President Pro Tempore, declared on Wednesday that he will not follow the court order. In a letter to the court, Scarnati’s attorneys argued that the Supreme Court’s order was unconstitutional, in a way that acted to “usurp the General Assembly’s constitutionally delegated role of drafting Pennsylvania’s congressional districting plan.”

The data in question that Scarnati is refusing to hand over involves the borders and boundaries of all municipalities in the state. It’s not clear why that data cannot be obtained in any other way, such as from census figures or even from the Democrats in the legislature, but the fact remains that the court has ordered it, and Scarnati won’t give it.

Typically, defying a court order could lead to a finding of contempt of court and possibly even jail time. Scarnati is clearly counting on the U.S. Supreme Court intervening and overruling the Pennsylvania court — something legal experts consider unlikely, since the ruling was rooted in Pennsylvania state law. If the Supreme Court does not agree to consider the case, it remains to be seen whether Scarnati will actually risk a contempt of court citation, fines, or jail just for this cause.

So what happens next? The legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf have just over a week until the Feb. 9 drawing of new Congressional districts, and two weeks until the Feb. 15 deadline for submitting them to the Court. The Court also said that it will redraw the districts themselves, if lawmakers can’t submit a plan that passed constitutional muster.

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