Voters ask state Supreme Court to hear gerrymandering case

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

As attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania turn to the state Supreme Court for a swift ruling on their gerrymandering lawsuit against lawmakers, a similar suit is beginning to make its way through federal court.

The League and 18 individual voters filed their suit June 15, but court proceedings didn’t get underway for almost four months, when the Commonwealth Court heard arguments Oct. 4 over state legislators’ attempt to halt the case.

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. A Pennsylvania ethics board is accusing state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin of violating both judicial and constitutional codes of conduct by exchanging lewd and offensive emails with friends. The Judicial Conduct Board on Tuesday said it filed four charges with a disciplinary court that has the power to remove judges. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With the League's lawsuit now on hold after a ruling from the Commonwealth Court, attorneys are petitioning the state Supreme Court to supersede the ruling and take over their case against Pennsylvania's legislative leaders.

The League’s lawsuit alleges Republican state lawmakers engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering when drawing the current U.S. congressional maps in 2011.

'King's Bench' ruling: Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini ruled Monday, Oct. 16, to halt the League's lawsuit until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Gill v. Whitford — a similar case alleging gerrymandering by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin.

During an Oct. 4 hearing about lawmakers' attempt to delay the case pending the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, Pellegrini told the League's lawyers that the Commonwealth Court could not issue a final ruling in time to potentially order new maps to be redrawn for the 2018 election.

Pellegrini encouraged David Gersch, the lead attorney representing the League in its suit, to seek a “King’s Bench” ruling allowing the case to go straight to the state’s top court, and Gersch has taken his advice.

Anticipating Pellegrini's ruling to delay the suit, Gersch and the League’s lawyers filed an Application for Extraordinary Relief on Wednesday, Oct. 11, for the Supreme Court to step in, arguing the lawsuit “presents an issue of extraordinary and immediate importance” to Pennsylvania voters.

“Petitioners ask this court to exercise its extraordinary jurisdiction to ensure that they and millions of other Pennsylvania voters obtain redress for the violation of their rights in time for the 2018 elections,” the application reads.

Breakthrough Visuals graphic artist Terry LaBan's rendering of the discussion at a Fair Districts PA event in Montgomery County in February. (Courtesy:

The League’s lawyers have been vocal about their frustrations over the slow pace of court proceedings since filing the suit.

Pointing to a federal lawsuit filed Oct. 11, for which a trial date has already been set, the application states “there is no serious question” that the case can and should be resolved before the 2018 elections and argues that a case in front of state courts should be resolved before any similar cases at the federal level.  

Agre v. Wolf: Five Pennsylvanians filed a federal lawsuit  Oct. 2 against Gov. Tom Wolf, now-former Secretary of State Pedro Cortes and Jonathan Marks, the commissioner of the state’s Bureau of Elections, for their role in implementing the 2011 congressional maps at the center of the League’s lawsuit.

Cortes resigned from his position  Wednesday, Oct. 11, and has been replaced in the lawsuit with acting Secretary of State Robert Torres.

The federal lawsuit claims the congressional plan, which was introduced and approved on the same day in 2011 by the state General Assembly, violates the Equal Protection and Privileges and Immunities clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by “cracking” and “packing” voters into certain congressional districts.

More:U.S. court ruling could spur Pa. gerrymandering challenge

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The lawsuit also argues that Pennsylvania voters’ constitutional right to free speech are violated by that practice.

In partisan gerrymanders, the party in power will try to pack opposition-party voters into as few districts as possible to ensure they win in lopsided elections, while cracking opposition voters across the remaining districts to make it impossible for them to gain a majority of the vote, according to redistricting experts and reform advocates.

“The 2011 plan is intended to, and does, control or privilege the expression of certain points of view and the speech that citizens hear and receive in these districts,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Alice Ballard wrote in the lawsuit. “While any redistricting plan would affect speech in some manner, the 2011 plan intentionally seeks to amplify speech for one party over another.”

The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to rule the 2011 plan is unconstitutional and order Wolf and his administration to submit new congressional maps to be used for the 2018 elections. 

Wolf, Torres and Marks must respond to the federal lawsuit by Oct. 24, according to court documents. Trial is set to begin at 10 a.m. Dec. 5 at the Philadelphia-based federal court.