Pennsylvania Supreme Court Picks Democrat-Favored Congressional Map


Democrats celebrated and Republicans demurred Wednesday after the Democrat-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court selected the state’s new congressional map. 

In so doing, the court overturned a decision earlier this month by Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough (R) to allow implementation of a redistricting plan passed by the GOP-led General Assembly but vetoed by Governor Tom Wolf (D). The initial version of the legislature-approved map was drawn by a private citizen, Amanda Holt of Lehigh County, though legislators modified her plan somewhat.

State lawmakers must redraw congressional districts every 10 years to accord with new population data from the U.S. Census. Because Pennsylvania’s population growth has lagged behind that of most other states, it will lose one of its 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives next year. Since Wolf and Republican lawmakers could not agree on redesigned districts in a timely fashion, state judges determined they needed to resolve the matter.

After the governor appealed McCullough’s decision, the state Supreme Court considered 12 reapportionment plans in addition to the one she upheld—one map offered by the governor and numerous others created by legislators, private citizens and interest groups. In a four-to-three ruling, the court finally picked the so-called “Carter Plan,” named after its lead petitioner Carol Ann Carter. (Democratic Justice Debra Todd joined Republicans Sallie Mundy and Kevin Brobson in dissenting.)

Backers of the Carter Plan cannot be considered disinterested from a partisan standpoint. Most of the 16 petitioners have contributed financially to Democratic campaign committees, including Wolf’s and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s among others. One litigant, Mary Ellen Balchunis, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Congress six years ago against then-Representative Pat Meehan. 

The Carter Plan’s explicit goal is to minimize any changes to the present congressional map while reducing the Keystone State’s congressional delegation by one. While courts have sometimes favored this “least-change approach,” McCullough’s original decision cautioned against adhering to previous district shapes at the expense of constitutional requirements such as district compactness.

As a result of the new reapportionment, Republicans will lose at least one of their congresspersons, insofar as incumbent Representatives Fred Keller (R-PA-12) and Glenn Thompson (R-PA-15) are drawn into the same new Northern Pennsylvania district — one that largely consists of Thompson’s current territory. 

No Democratic representatives find themselves in the same predicament, though one Democrat whose fortune has inched slightly toward the worse is Lehigh-Valley-area Representative Susan Wild (D-PA-07). Her district is now 51 percent Democratic and will become 51 percent Republican. 

Otherwise, the two parties will find themselves similarly poised to hold swing districts they’ve managed to win in recent years. The districts held by RepresentativesMatt Cartwright (D-PA-08) and Conor Lamb (D-PA-17) will move modestly leftward. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), who has managed to hold onto his district despite a thin partisan disadvantage, will compete within an area that has hardly shifted geographically. 

Wednesday’s ruling accentuates Republicans’ preexisting distrust of the state Supreme Court, an aversion largely born of a 2018 decision wherein the court’s Democratic majority struck down congressional district lines implemented four years earlier. Contending that the legislature drew those districts to aid Republicans electorally and that it disregarded the legal requirement that those districts be compact, the court took the unprecedented — and, Republicans argued, extraconstitutional — step of designing new districts itself.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Quarryville) and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Bellefonte) blasted the state Supreme Court’s selection of the Carter Plan.

“The process for creating district lines is clearly defined, and even if the governor refused to follow the process, it does not allow the courts to just pick and choose when or when not to follow the law,” they said in a joint statement. “Sadly, candidates and voters must now submit to a unilateral court that sees itself above every person in our Commonwealth.”

Wolf, meanwhile, lauded the ruling.

“I’m pleased with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ruling on a congressional redistricting plan,” he wrote on Twitter. “The ‘Carter Plan’ is a fair map that will result in a congressional delegation mirroring the people of Pennsylvania — without favoring one party.”

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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 “Tom Wolf” by Governor Tom Wolf. CC BY 2.0.

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