Pa. Supreme Court orders gerrymandering case forward; trial set for Dec. 11

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

A state Supreme Court ruling could change the landscape of 2018 congressional elections in Pennsylvania after it ordered a gerrymandering case against state legislative leaders must be decided by the end of the year. 

According to a Thursday, Nov. 9, court order, the Commonwealth Court must take the case and issue a ruling by Dec. 31 on a lawsuit claiming state legislators engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering when drawing up the current congressional maps in 2011. 

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)

The state Supreme Court’s ruling comes less than a month after the state Commonwealth Court granted a stay in the case pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on a similar gerrymandering lawsuit.

In a news release, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania President Susan Carty welcomed the state Supreme Court’s decision and said her organization is confident the ruling will “result in fairer congressional districts” throughout the state.

“The entire purpose of this lawsuit is to ensure that Pennsylvania’s maps are drawn in such a way that every voter can have a meaningful impact in their elections,” Carty said in a news release. “We are thrilled that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized that this is an issue that cannot wait.”

Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson has scheduled oral arguments to begin at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 11 in Courtroom 3001 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. 

Temporary delay: During an Oct. 4 hearing on the stay, Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini warned lawyers for the League of Women Voters and the suit’s 18 other plaintiffs that it was nearly impossible for the case to work its way through the state court system in time to affect the 2018 elections.

“You can hope, but I can tell you it isn’t going to happen,” Pellegrini told the plaintiffs’ lawyers, suggesting they petition the Supreme Court to step in for a quicker resolution. 

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Taking Pellegrini’s advice, the League’s lawyers filed an Application for Extraordinary Relief on Oct. 11, arguing the lawsuit “presents an issue of extraordinary and immediate importance” to Pennsylvania voters, and the Supreme Court agreed, sending the case back to the Commonwealth Court.

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

In a Nov. 13 court order, Brobson set the Dec. 11 trial date and dropped the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania as a plaintiff in the case. Because the League of Women Voters does not have the right to vote, it “lacks standing to file political gerrymandering claims,” according to the court order. 

Multiple court fights: The gerrymandering lawsuit against state House Speaker Mike Turzai, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and the Pennsylvania General Assembly is just one of several cases that could change the geographic boundaries of congressional districts in upcoming elections.

Lawyers for Turzai and Scarnati filed motions to delay the League’s lawsuit pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gill v. Whitford, a case involving claims of partisan gerrymandering by Republicans drawing Wisconsin’s state legislative districts. 

The Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford on Oct. 3 but is not expected to make its ruling until next summer, far too late to have any impact on the 2018 elections. 

More:Supreme Court rejects bid to halt Pennsylvania redistricting lawsuit

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Federal lawsuit: The state’s top election officials also are facing a federal lawsuit over their roles in implementing the 2011 congressional maps at the center of the League’s lawsuit. 

Five Pennsylvanians have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf, acting Secretary of State Robert Torres and Jonathan Marks, the commissioner of the state’s Bureau of Elections.

The federal lawsuit, Agre v. Wolf, claims the congressional plan violates the Equal Protection and Privileges and Immunities clauses of the 14th Amendment by “cracking” and “packing” voters into certain congressional districts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Nov. 3 request to delay Agre v. Wolf, a month after hearing arguments in Gill v. Whitford.

Republican legislative leaders requested the court stay Agre v. Wolf until the Commonwealth Court renders its decision in the League’s lawsuit, which they requested be delayed until the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision on Gill v. Whitford.

Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization looking to pressure state lawmakers to change the way legislative districts are created, will host a meeting at 1 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18, at Martin Library.

At the meeting, representatives of the organization will speak about how gerrymandering "has shaped Pennsylvania's state legislative and U.S. congressional districts, impacted your vote and how you can help put an end to it," according to an advertisement for the meeting.