Compelling closing arguments bring federal trial over Pa. gerrymandering to an end

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In the last three election cycles Republicans have won 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats. The 18th district seat is currently vacant.  Former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigned in October. (Keystone Crossroads)

In the last three election cycles Republicans have won 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats. The 18th district seat is currently vacant. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican, resigned in October. (Keystone Crossroads)

The federal trial over Pennsylvania’s congressional district map wrapped up in a Philadelphia courtroom on Thursday with a string of stirring closing arguments before a three-judge panel.

During four days of proceedings, a group of more than 20 Pennsylvania voters challenged the way Republican lawmakers drew the state’s congressional districts in 2011, asserting a gerrymandering scheme that violates the U.S. Constitution.

If the voters are successful, they could trigger a new congressional map impacting the 2018 midterm elections when all 18 of Pennsylvania’s seats in the U.S. House of Representative could be contested.

First up in closing arguments was defense attorney Jason Torchinsky, who represents House Speaker Michael Turzai (R-Allegheny) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson).

Overall, Torchinsky said the plaintiffs fell short in proving their claim, and disputed the notion that voters had been caused harm as a result of the map.

Although he admitted that partisan data — such as election results and voter  registration information — was a factor in the creation of the map, he said the depositions of two key legislative staffers read on Wednesday showed it was not its driving force.

Torchinsky contended that mapmakers’ leading priorities were to distribute population equally in each district, comply with the Voting Rights Act, and recognize incumbency.

The defense had challenged the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Daniel McGlone, with two of its own experts. Both dismissed the idea that the map was designed to be a “voter proof” way to ensure an eight seat congressional advantage for Republicans.

“Democracy is hard,” said Torchinsky, “requiring give and takes … accepting results of elections … and sometimes being represented by people we don’t like.”

He sympathized with the voters’ frustrations and complaints over the political process and the current political atmosphere.

For the last three congressional election cycles, Republicans have maintained 13 seats to the Democrats five. Statewide, Democrats maintain a significant advantage in voter registration.

“We get it,” said Torchinsky. “However the federal courts are not the place for political grievances.”

None of the voters had ever been prevented from voting in any election, he said, nor from campaigning and participating in the political process.

Attorney Thomas Geoghegan, representing the plaintiffs, strongly disagreed. He argued that Republicans who controlled the 2011 mapmaking process rigged the system against voters, and framed the case at hand as an opportunity to restore faith in Pennsylvania’s congressional elections.

In engineering the map and the redistricting process, he says, the legislature interfered between the people and the national government, dictated the outcome of elections, and favored one group — Republicans over Democrats — all in violation of the Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Geoghegan highlighted McGlone’s testimony and legislative staffers depositions, saying it showed a pattern of manipulation that “shoved voters” into districts to maximize the number of Republican leaning districts, and to create “super-majority” districts for Democrats, minimizing their potency statewide.

“If ever there were a partisan gerrymander in which [the Elections Clause] could apply, this is it,” said Geoghegan.

Over the four day proceedings, attorneys Mark Aronchick and Michele Hangley, representing Governor Tom Wolf, who was also named as a defendant in the case, rarely interjected. They sat on the side of the courtroom and were often overlooked.

Aronchick explained they were silent to allow Republican lawmakers an opportunity to defend their work. When he finally voiced the executive defendants’ perspective, it aligned squarely with the viewpoint of the voters.

“We were looking for transparency,” said Aronchick.

He criticized the legislative defendants two experts and said they weren’t even given the data or the facts that were used to make the map.

“How was the map actually created? … Partisan data was used … but to what extent?” asked Aronchick.  

Aronchick also took issue with the way harm to voters was characterized by the legislative defendants, referring to it as “the most callous way to look at citizen participation.”

Instead, he saw them as brave plaintiffs “who have not lost hope and faith in democracy.”

He concluded by saying Governor Wolf was willing to do whatever it would take to develop a new plan in time for the next election.

The three-judge panel will weigh the evidence, testimony, and oral arguments. No timetable for a ruling was given.

The judges did address the sanctions that plaintiffs sought against Turzai and Scarnati for what they called a “bad faith disregard” of court orders in the pre-trial deposition and discovery process. Once the plaintiffs rested their case Thursday, the panel said the motion was closed.

On Monday, a similar case challenging the state’s congressional map will begin in Pa. Commonwealth Court.

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