Federal judge to state lawmakers: use 2001 legislative district boundaries

By Jon Campisi | Feb 10, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled that state legislative district boundaries that were drawn up in 2001 can be used as the election season moves forward.

Ruling in response to an injunctive claim that had been recently filed by some Republican state lawmakers, U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick Wednesday determined that scrapping the 2001 legislative boundaries in favor of a plan that hasn’t even been drawn up yet would be detrimental to the scheduled April 24 primary election.

“To enjoin the 2012 election from proceeding under the 2001 Plan would leave the Pennsylvania primary in a state of unacceptable uncertainty,” Surrick wrote in his ruling, which was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “Perhaps this is why the [Pennsylvania] Supreme Court directed that the 2001 Plan be used.”

The state’s high court recently invalidated the 2011 Legislative Reapportionment plan, ruling the plan unconstitutional because it appeared to be too badly gerrymandered.

Some Democrats had argued that those new boundaries, which the Republican majority helped craft following the recent decennial U.S. census, unnecessarily broke up counties, municipalities and political subdivisions, something forbidden under the commonwealth’s constitution.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court instructed the legislature to proceed with election campaigning using the 2001 maps, since it would take too long to go through the entire legislative reapportionment process again before the looming primary election.

Surrick, the federal court judge, agreed.

“With election deadlines quickly approaching, and no existing alternative reapportionment plan, Defendant needs certainty as to how to proceed,” he wrote. “There is no reasonable alternative at this point but to allow the elections to proceed under the 2001 Plan.”

Surrick wrote that the fact that it’s a presidential election year complicates matters further. Under Pennsylvania state law, the primary election has to be held on the fourth Tuesday of April.

The judge wrote that if a revised reapportionment plan is completed by Feb. 22, in light of the exceptions, corrections and the appeals process, the date for final determination as to the legality of that plan will run up against the April 24 primary election date.

“Cleary, the primary would have to be postponed so that the Secretary of the Commonwealth and other election officials could fulfill their statutory obligations,” Surrick wrote. “We can only speculate as to whether or when there will be a constitutionally approved reapportionment plan based upon the 2010 census. Because there is presently no alternative plan, if we issue a temporary restraining order … the primary election certainly will not occur as required by statute. Depending on what happens with the LRC [Legislative Reapportionment Commission], Pennsylvania voters could be disenfranchised.”

As for it being a presidential election year, Surrick wrote that any disruption in the electoral process would “deprive Pennsylvania voters of their right to choose delegates to the National Convention and their candidate for the Presidency of the United States.”

Surrick also denied a request to convene a three-judge panel to further hear the case, which was initiated by Republican state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the majority leader in the Senate, and Republican state Rep. Samuel Smith.

A group of Latino voters also recently filed suit in opposition to using the 2001 legislative maps. They had argued that the demography of voting districts had recently changed to include more Latinos living in Pennsylvania.

Using the 2001 legislative boundaries, they had argued, would unfairly affect Latino voters.

That case is pending in federal court.

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