Federal judges decline to immediately throw out court-drawn congressional map

Compare the 2011 congressional district map with the court-imposed plan using the interactive slider above.

A new congressional map in Pennsylvania on Friday survived a request from eight of the state’s Republican congressmen that federal judges throw it out immediately, but the case remained far from settled days before candidates will start collecting signatures to get on the primary ballot.

Hours after they were appointed to the case, a three-judge panel declined to temporarily hold up implementation of the map put in place by the state Supreme Court last week. The new map substantially overhauls a GOP-drawn one that has helped produce a predominantly Republican delegation and was widely viewed as among the nation’s most gerrymandered.

The three federal judges laid out a schedule for the parties to elaborate on their legal positions, including a March 9 hearing in Harrisburg.

Congressional candidates in Pennsylvania are scheduled to start collecting signatures Tuesday to get their names on the primary ballot.

The GOP congressmen and two Republican state senators sued two high-ranking state elections official on Thursday, asking the federal court to require the use of a Republican-drawn 2011 congressional district map for this year’s primary and general elections.

They argue the map the state justices produced is biased in favor of Democrats, and the state court did not give state lawmakers sufficient time to produce a replacement map.

A lawyer for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf wrote the court Friday on behalf of the elections officials, noting that two other Republican leaders in the Legislature have a request for a stay of the new map pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Deputy General Counsel Thomas Howell asked the federal court to defer action on the congressmen’s lawsuit until that request has been resolved.

Howell claimed that the lawsuit against Wolf’s acting secretary of state and the head of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation has “significant hurdles” and is “rife with legal and factual errors.”

The judicial panel, named pursuant to a federal law governing constitutional challenges to congressional reapportionment, consists of Judge Christopher Conner , a Pennsylvania-based district judge; Judge Jerome Simandle , a senior district judge from New Jersey; and Judge Kent Jordan, a circuit judge who was formerly a district judge in Delaware.

Conner and Jordan were chosen for the federal bench by President George W. Bush, while Simandle was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.

In the parallel case, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put the new map on hold, arguing state justices overstepped their authority. On Thursday the leaders also asked the state Supreme Court to delay the map . Wolf and other parties were given until noon Monday to weigh in.

The 2011 map has helped Republicans maintain a 13-5 edge in the congressional delegation for three elections.

The Democrats who are the majority on the state Supreme Court ruled in January that the 2011 map violated the state constitution’s guarantee of free and equal elections. After lawmakers did not enact a Wolf-supported plan during a two-week window, the judges drew their own map.

Democrats have about 800,000 more registered voters in Pennsylvania, but President Donald Trump, a Republican, narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in the state during the 2016 election.

Democrats are hopeful that new Pennsylvania congressional districts will help them flip enough Republican seats to retake majority control of the U.S. House this year. Six Pennsylvania congressman elected in 2016 are not running again, an unusually large number.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

50% of WHYY’s funding comes from donations made by people just like you.