In an unprecedented move, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional a legislative redistricting plan that had caused a bipartisan uproar, with Democrats accusing Republicans, who control both legislative chambers, of cutting up districts to suit their own political agendas.
Republican lawmakers had claimed the newly carved districts more accurately reflected population shifts; new boundaries are required to be drawn to coincide with updated census counts each decade.
The high court agreed with Senate Democrats and other appellants, ruling that the redistricting plan, which had been approved by the bipartisan Legislative Reapportionment Commission back in December, violated the state constitution and existing law.
The ruling came after the high court heard oral arguments on the matter earlier this week.
“This Court finds that the final 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan is contrary to law,” the court stated in its ruling, which came via a 4-3 vote. “Accordingly, the final 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan is remanded to the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission with a directive to reapportion the Commonwealth in a manner consistent with this Court’s Opinion, which will follow.”
The Supreme Court did not release a full opinion accompanying its order, leaving many to wonder how it arrived at its decision.
The ruling did seem to please many Democrats and those who appealed the redistricting plan, who had argued that the plan was a blatant show of gerrymandering.
Democrats claimed that the new maps unfairly carved up municipalities and political wards, and thus were unconstitutional.
“Needless to say, we are very pleased with the ruling of the court,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County, an opponent of the redistricting plan, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We thought there was a better way to draw the House and Senate lines … We await the [court] opinion that will give us instructions and guidance.”
Because the high court did not release a detailed opinion, it’s unknown whether the changes that need to be made are major or minor.
In the meantime, some legislative leaders are worried about the prospect of the court ruling hampering the upcoming primary campaign season.
The Inquirer reported that some running for reelection had already started stumping in their new districts – or at least what they thought would be their new districts.
Republicans who had voted for the redistricting plan appeared dismayed by the ruling.
“We believe what was approved was in full compliance with existing precedent, the state constitution and federal rules,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from Delaware County, which neighbors Philadelphia, told the Inquirer. “I think any objective observers would say the commission plan is superior to the 2001 existing plan in terms of number of municipalities split and population metrics.”
The court’s ruling states that all 2012 election dates will remain the same with the exception of the primary election calendar.
Primaries are scheduled for April.
If the court ends up requiring a total revamping of the redistricting, the process could take months.
The judicial vote was split mainly along party lines, with the exception of Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican who voted with the Democratic jurists on declaring the redistricting plan unconstitutional.
Justice Thomas G. Saylor issued a dissenting opinion in which he stated that he was not convinced that the redistricting plan violates the law.
“Although I am receptive to the concern that past decisions of the Court may suggest an unnecessarily stringent approach to equalization of population as between voting districts, I believe this could be addressed via prospective guidance from the Court,” Saylor wrote.
Saylor was joined in his dissent by Justices Joan Orie Melvin and J. Michael Eakin.