Partisan Gerrymandering Is on Trial in Pennsylvania

State and federal courts in Pennsylvania are taking up the issue of partisan gerrymandering — and their decisions could potentially have a significant impact on the 2018 midterm elections. Partisan gerrymandering is the intentional drawing of voting district maps to benefit a particular political party — and Pennsylvania is infamous for its gerrymandered districts. As Stephen Wolf of the Daily Kos explains, “[T]he GOP’s brazenly tortured lines have produced a stable 13-to-5 Republican congressional majority in what is otherwise an evenly divided swing state.”

In an effort to change this undemocratic system, the League of Women Voters, joined by a group of individual voters, sued in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Initially, the court stayed (suspended) the case, opting to wait for a decision by the United States Supreme Court on partisan gerrymandering in a recent Wisconsin case. With the 2018 elections looming, lawyers for the League of Women Voters petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to step in. Under order by the state Supreme Court, the Commonwealth Court will now hear the League of Women Voters’ case and render a decision by December 31. The trial is scheduled to begin on December 11 in Harrisburg.

Petitioners in the League of Women Voters case argue that the Pennsylvania congressional district maps — drawn under a Republican-controlled state legislature — violate the Pennsylvania state constitution. In two other Pennsylvania gerrymandering cases, the claim of unconstitutionality is a federal one, based on the U.S. Constitution.

These two cases, Agre v. Wolf and Diamond v. Torres, were filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In addition to other claims, the plaintiffs in these cases, particularly in Agre, make the unusual argument that the Pennsylvania congressional district maps violate the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Diamond case has been stayed by the District Court until the Agre trial ends. Meanwhile, Agre is proceeding along, despite attempts to stall it, including a failed appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Agre trial is set to begin in District Court in Philadelphia on December 4.

Among all the judicial activity revolving around partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, Stephen Wolf considers the League of Women Voters case the most likely one to succeed. He says, “With Democrats holding a majority on the court [Pennsylvania Supreme Court], there is a strong chance Pennsylvania could have new congressional districts in time for the 2018 midterms.”

The League of Women Voters trial in Commonwealth Court and the Agre trial in federal District Court are both open to the public.

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