Commonwealth Court Judge Chooses Citizen-Drawn Congressional Map Favored by GOP Legislature

Pennsylvania Capitol Building


Because Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and GOP-controlled legislature couldn’t agree on a congressional redistricting plan, a Commonwealth Court judge has stepped in and chosen one favored by the latter.

Judge Patricia A. McCullough (R), who was charged individually with selecting a new congressional map from among several proposed by state officials and nongovernmental actors, issued a 228-page report explaining her decision.

“Although Governor [Tom] Wolf vetoed [the General Assembly-approved map] and that bill never obtained the official status of a duly enacted statute, neither Governor Wolf nor any other party herein has advanced any cognizable legal objection to the constitutionality of the congressional districts contained therein,” McCullough wrote.

The initial draft of the map she selected was drawn by Lehigh County resident Amanda Holt. The Pennsylvania House State Government Committee chose that plan from numerous maps submitted online by interested parties and made adjustments of its own. 

The final product was then submitted to the full state House of Representatives, which passed it. It was subsequently sent to the state Senate, which approved it for consideration by the governor, who ended up rejecting it. The plan was the first congressional-reapportionment proposal based largely on the work of a private citizen to pass the General Assembly. 

State Representative Seth Grove (R-York), who chairs State Government Committee and sponsored the bill to implement the Holt map, praised the judge’s ruling.

“I applaud Judge McCullough for recognizing the nonpartisanship of the map and the fact it adheres to all requirements to make a fair map, which treats all candidates equally,” Grove said in a statement. “From the start of the transparent map-making process in July, House Republicans took the new approach to not only gather input from Pennsylvanians, but also take into consideration maps they created.” 

Still, the GOP is far from reveling in the Commonwealth-Court decision, for the state Supreme Court is likely to settle the matter for good after Wolf appeals. The state’s high court has a five-to-two Democratic majority—and a history of obtruding into congressional redistricting to Democrats’ advantage. 

In 2018, in response to a lawsuit from the League of Women Voters, the Supreme Court threw out a congressional map that had been in effect for the preceding five years, based on an argument that GOP lawmakers drew the districts to maximize Republicans’ electoral prospects. In place of those districts, the court took it upon itself to design new ones, an unprecedented step and one not provided for in Pennsylvania law. The result was a congressional map more favorable toward Democrats’ electability. 

Pennsylvania’s Constitution vests state lawmakers with the power to redraw congressional districts, a process they must conduct every decade in response to population changes reflected in U.S. Census data. Based on new figures published last year, which show sluggish population growth in Pennsylvania compared to other states, the Keystone State will lose one of its 18 congressional seats.

The map selected by McCullough would make some seats more difficult for Democrats to hold, particularly those now occupied by U.S. Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-PA-08) and Conor Lamb (D-PA-17). The plan nonetheless got a generally positive review from the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project, as far as avoiding undue partisan advantage and in terms of containing several districts that could conceivably be won by either a Republican or a Democrat.

By contrast, a map designed by Wolf’s office would aid Democratic congressional candidates. Notably, it would split the Bucks-County-based First Congressional District now represented by Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate who has been targeted by Democrats ever since he first won his seat in 2016.

McCullough opposed Wolf’s proposed map because it divided Bucks County between districts for the first time in 150 years, and because it split Pittsburgh for the first time ever. Cities and counties are legally required to be split only when doing so is necessary to equalize all of the districts’ population totals. 

The judge wrote that Wolf’s plan moreover “provides a partisan advantage to the Democratic party in contravention to the natural state of political voting behavior … .”

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by PA Senate Republicans.



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