Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pelligrini heard arguments Wednesday over whether to stay a lawsuit over the state’s congressional district map until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar case out of Wisconsin.
The case brought by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania claims the current map is a partisan gerrymander that favors Republicans and violates the state constitution.
Gerrymandering is the age-old practice by which lawmakers draw voting districts that give one political party — typically the one in charge — an advantage over their opponents.
The idea is to pack as many voters of the opposing party into as few districts as possible, then break up remaining opposition voters over as many districts as possible — minimizing the number of the other party’s voters within each of the “cracked” districts.
The issue of partisan gerrymandering is also before the U.S. Supreme Court right now and could have an influence on the Pennsylvania case.
In Commonwealth Court, attorneys representing the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Republican leadership asked the judge to wait until the Supreme Court issues a decision in Gill v. Whitford later this term.
“Let’s take a breath. Get this case right and not rush it,” said Attorney Jason Torchinsky to the judge.
Lawyers representing the League of Women Voters and 18 petitioners, all Democrats, oppose any delay and asked the judge to move the case along as quickly as possible — in time to have an affect on the 2018-midterm elections.
Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Public Interest Law Center, represents the petitioners. She says because the case was brought under the state constitution nothing that happens in the Supreme Court will stop the case from moving forward.
“What is at issue in this case is the right to vote and the right to have your vote counted,” says McKenzie. “Those are core fundamental rights to our democracy and so we need a map now — as soon as possible — that complies with the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
But Judge Pelligrini said even if the court moves the case along as quickly as possible, he doesn’t see how it will be in time for the 2018 elections.
He added that the fastest way the case could be heard is by filing a “King’s Bench” petition that could potentially send the case directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Asking the state Supreme Court to invoke their jurisdiction on the case is an option on the table, says McKenzie.
Pennsylvania is often cited as one of the worst offenders of partisan gerrymandering.
In this state, the General Assembly sets congressional district boundaries, passing the map like any other bill.
During the last redistricting process in 2011, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and the governor’s office.
And they’ve since won 13 out of 18 congressional seats, even though registered Democrats out number registered Republicans by more than 800,000 voters statewide.
Another lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s congressional district map was filed in federal court this week.
Judge Pelligrini is expected to issue a decision about the stay before the end of the month.