A week after invalidating a legislative redistricting plan for the new decade, the first time such a ruling has occurred since the late 1960s, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released its majority opinion in the case, stating that it ruled the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Plan was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily broke up political subdivisions.
In its 87-page majority opinion, the high court wrote that it invalidated the new legislative maps because they broke up municipalities and political subdivisions, something prohibited by the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Soon after the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment Commission approved the redrawn political maps, something required by law after each U.S. decennial census, a number of citizens and municipal and state officials filed an appeal in federal court, arguing the redistricting plan violated both the federal and state constitutions.
Pennsylvania law requires each legislative district to accurately reflect the population of said districts.
The appellants, mostly Democrats, had argued that the new maps were done primarily with partisan goals in mind; Republicans were in charge of redrawing the maps given their majority status in the General Assembly.
In its opinion, the court sided with the appellants, ruling that the new plan unnecessarily split up political subdivisions, which includes counties, municipalities and political wards in cities like Philadelphia.
The ruling stated that not only did the 2011 redistricting plan violate the Pennsylvania Constitution, but that it appeared to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.
“It is true, of course, that redistricting has an inevitably legislative, and therefore an inevitably political, element; but, the constitutional commands and restrictions on the process exist precisely as a brake on the most overt of potential excesses and abuse,” the ruling states. “Moreover, the restrictions recognize that communities indeed have shared interests for which they can more effectively advocate when they can act as a unified body and when they have representatives who are responsive to those interests.”
The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, and was signed by Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery.
Justices Thomas Saylor and J. Michael Eakin filed concurring and dissenting opinions and Justice Joan Orie Melvin filed the lone dissenting opinion.
“The complaints of the various appellants notwithstanding, it is clear that there is no perfect plan,” Melvin wrote in her dissenting opinion.
Melvin wrote that she believes the Legislative Reapportionment Commission adopted the 2011 plan “in good faith,” and that the LRC “promulgated a plan that ultimately achieved substantial equality of population while balancing the other mandates in,” the commonwealth’s constitution.
Melvin furthermore wrote that the LRC “faithfully applied our existing precedent in preparing the 2011 Final Plan. By failing to uphold the LRC’s reliance on our prior decisions, the Majority interjects uncertainty into future redistricting cases.
“Moreover, by declaring that the 2001 Plan remains in effect, the Majority ensures that certain districts will be overrepresented while others will be underrepresented, as evidenced by population shifts from 2000 to 2010,” Melvin’s dissenting opinion continues. “Such a situation is untenable.” The court ruling has thrown into question the ability of election officials to hold the April primary on its regularly scheduled date.
Some have argued that it would be nearly impossible for new legislative maps to be drawn up in time for the upcoming election season.
Local media has reported on the concerns of those campaigning for legislative seats, some of whom have been quoted saying they don’t even know what district they will be running in given the sudden changes to the political geography.
A suit is pending in federal court in Philadelphia challenging the use of the current legislative maps, the ones from 2001, which is what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court says should be done while new maps are drawn up.
Critics say the old maps don’t accurately reflect today’s population, and that proceeding under the current legislative boundaries would be unconstitutional.