Update on Redistricting Cases With Potential Pennsylvania Impact

The issue of partisan gerrymandering was on the docket during the first week in October, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and in courts in Pennsylvania. Partisan gerrymandering is the practice of intentionally drawing voting district lines in a way that benefits a particular political party. Here is a court-by-court update on the status of these gerrymandering cases.

In the U.S. Supreme Court

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U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Wisconsin redistricting case, Gill v. Whitford. Early news reports of the argument suggest the expected: the four liberal justices see the injustice of a gerrymander that denies people of the “wrong” party a meaningful right to vote. The four conservative justices may be willing to stay with the existing system, under which courts do not interfere with redistricting on the grounds that it is a “political” matter. Justice Kennedy, who is potentially the key swing vote, appeared to take the arguments by the plaintiffs seriously. Judgment in the case will take a while, likely emerging sometime during the present term, which lasts until the end of June 2018.   –Ken Myers
 

In the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

The day before the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Wisconsin case, another partisan gerrymandering case was filed in federal District Court in Philadelphia by five Pennsylvania citizens. Taking a different approach from the Wisconsin case, the Pennsylvania plaintiffs in Agre v. Wolf argue that the the partisan nature of Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map violates the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim that even the attempt or intent to gerrymander is unconstitutional under this clause and that the court should require Pennsylvania to come up with a process of redistricting that has effective guarantees against partisan overreach.

As Raymond Solomon, one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained:

We’re not just looking for a new map, but a new process. California, Arizona, New Jersey and other states have shown that there can be neutral and fair processes that do not rig the outcomes in advance. We feel the U.S. House is the People’s House, and deciding who goes to the People’s House belongs to the people and not the politicians.

 

In the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

At the state level, a hearing was held before Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in a partisan gerrymandering case brought by petitioners the League of Women Voters and individual voters from across the commonwealth. At issue in the hearing was whether this case should be delayed until the U.S. Supreme Court delivers its ruling in the Wisconsin case, as claimed by lawyers for the Pennsylvania General Assembly and its leaders.

The petitioners argue that a delay is not warranted because their case is based on the state constitution, not the federal one, and therefore, would not be governed by the Supreme Court’s ruling. They also emphasize that time is critical to prevent yet another election where the voices of Democratic voters are effectively silenced because their voting districts were drawn to secure Republican victories.

Judge Pellegrini said that even if he allows this case to proceed without waiting for the Supreme court’s ruling in the Wisconsin case, the judicial process will not be completed before the 2018 midterm elections. He did mention the option of a King’s Bench petition, which can potentially fast-track a case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

When can we expect Judge Pellegrini to rule on whether he will delay the case or permit it to proceed in Commonwealth Court? David Gersch, one of the attorneys for the petitioners, believes the judge will issue his order within a few weeks.

 

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