Bending Toward Justice: Supreme Court, federal court panel deny challenges to new Pennsylvania congressional districts

Pennsylvania Republicans suffered two huge redistricting defeats on Monday, paving the way for a new court-drawn congressional map to be used in the 2018 elections.

On the heels of Conor Lamb’s stunning victory last Tuesday to win the special election in Pennsylvania‘s 18th congressional district, Democrats notched two legal wins on Monday that will significantly aid their efforts to retake the majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections — and give Democratic voters in Pennsylvania fair representation for the first time since the 2010 Census.

First, a three-judge panel of federal judges issued a decision Monday morning denying Pennsylvania Republicans’ legal challenge to the state supreme court’s order setting new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts.

A few hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the same legal challenge, without comment and with no dissents.

The end of result is a stunning reversal of fortunes for Pennsylvania Republicans, who had engineered one of the country’s most lopsided partisan gerrymanders after the 2010 Census. Democrats hold a 800,000-person edge in voter registrations, yet Republicans had drawn the state’s congressional districts to give themselves a 13 to 5 advantage in Congress.

In late January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down that gerrymander and ordered the state legislature to propose a new congressional map consistent with certain criteria: the districts must be compact and contiguous, nearly equal in population, and drawn so as to not unnecessarily divide counties, cities, towns and wards.

In early February, the Court fleshed out its reasoning in a 139-page opinion written by Justice Debra McCloskey Todd. The Court credited the expert testimony presented by the voters who challenged the 2011 redistricting plan — statisticians, political scientists, and political historians who explained how unlikely it was that the Republican-held legislature would have drawn such pro-Republican districts absent extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Justice Todd explained:

By placing voters preferring one party’s candidates in districts where their votes are wasted on candidates likely to lose (cracking), or by placing such voters in districts where their votes are cast for candidates destined to win (packing), the non-favored party’s votes are diluted. It is axiomatic that a diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.

After the state supreme court’s decision, Republicans proposed a new map that was only slightly less of a partisan gerrymander than the one the court struck down. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe rejected that new map, sending the matter back to the state supreme court. The court then issued its own map, showing more respect for existing political subdivisions like counties.

State Republicans responded by filing a lawsuit in federal district court to stop the new map from taking effect and, at the same time, petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene for the same purpose. (They also proposed impeachment proceedings against the Democratic Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice who hold a majority on the court.)

That brings us to today’s decisions.

A three-judge panel comprised of two federal district court judges and one federal court of appeals judge — all appointed by Republican presidents — rejected the state Republicans’ challenge to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to issue its own redistricting map.

Two sets of plaintiffs had filed the lawsuit: two Pennsylvania state senators in leadership positions, and eight current Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation. Both sets of plaintiffs argued that the state supreme court decision violated the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, by usurping the state legislature’s constitutional role in drawing district lines.

The panel didn’t reach the merits of the legal challenges, however, because it found first that neither set of plaintiffs had “standing” to sue. “Standing” is a legal term to describe whether the plaintiff has suffered a legally cognizable injury that gives them the right to pursue a claim in federal court.

The two Republican state senate leaders lacked the authority to speak on behalf of the entire General Assembly, and therefore had no standing to sue, the panel found. Likewise, the eight current Republican congressmen lacked a viability legal theory for a claim in federal court. The panel explained: “Case law strongly suggests that a legislator has no legally cognizable interest in the composition of the district he or she represents.”

The congressmen’s claim also failed to make a causal connection between the Elections Clause claim and the injury they say they suffered. The panel wrote:

The record reflects an unbridgeable gap in the causal chain between the Federal Congressional Plaintiffs‟ claimed injuries and the alleged Elections Clause violations. That is, even if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had simply ordered that a new redistricting map be drawn, but had given the General Assembly free substantive rein (Count I) and a few months’ time (Count II) to accomplish that objective, the Federal Congressional Plaintiffs’ injury would persist. In that circumstance, the court would not have committed any of the improprieties alleged in the verified complaint, but district boundaries would still have changed. At bottom, the Federal Congressional Plaintiffs’ injuries are traceable only to the court’s decision to invalidate the 2011 Map and its mandate that a new map be adopted – acts that the Plaintiffs concede are “undoubtedly” within the state court’s authority.

Tuesday, March 20 is the deadline for candidates to file papers to be on the ballot for Pennsylvania primary elections, to be held on May 15.

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