PA Supreme Court throws out Congressional district maps

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court

If you felt a certain fondness for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has bad news for you: after a 4-3 ruling by the court Monday, it’s gone — and will be replaced by a newly shaped district by mid-February.

A majority of the justices ruled that the 2011 redistricting “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state Constitution and moved Monday to throw out the old map, which it said unfairly benefited Republicans. That includes the 7th District, considered by many around the county to be the most Gerrymandered Congressional district in the entire U.S.

The court gave the state legislature Feb. 9 to come up with a less Gerrymandered map — which must be approved by Gov. Tom Wolf before Feb. 15 — or it would impose one of its own, after hearing testimony and reviewing submitted potential district maps.

Wolf, for his part, applauded the decision and said he would cooperate to expedite the new maps.

“I strongly believe that gerrymandering is wrong and consistently have stated that the current maps are unfair to Pennsylvanians,” Wolf said in a statement. “My administration is reviewing the order and we are assessing the executive branch’s next steps in this process.”

At this point, the ruling is not expected to impact either the May primary election or the November general election date.

The criteria for such maps was made plain in Monday’s order:

“any congressional districting plan shall consist of: congressional districts composed of compact and contiguous territory; as nearly equal in population as practicable; and which do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”

The special election in the 18th District, scheduled for March is not impacted by this order.

The ruling will likely upend at least two of Chester County’s Congressional races — it is likely the new 6th and 7th Districts will be less weighted toward Republicans and put U.S. Reps. Ryan Costello (R-6) and Patrick Meehan (R-7) in a much tougher reelection fight. It is expected that the new map for the 16th District, currently held by Rep. Lloyd Smucker, will likely stay similar or get a few additional Republican voters — likely returning to a more familiar shape seen prior to 2011.

The change could scramble things for Democrats — as the nearly dozen challengers among the three Chester County districts could find themselves in different districts than they originally planned to run, depending on how the new maps are drawn.

Obviously, appeals to the Federal courts are likely, but legal experts suggest they face a dubious chance of success as the basis of the ruling was the state constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. District courts typically have been loathe to step into cases and rulings based on state Constitutions unless they are seen to violate the U.S. Constitution.

This story will be updated as comment from various parties emerges. Check back.

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