HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Rows of attorneys filled the courtroom of the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court on Friday, most of them arguing for their clients’ favorite map of the new districts in the Congress as judges weighed how to decide which is best.
Meanwhile, the justices did not necessarily pass a Republican-backed map recommended by a lower-court judge but seen by Democrats in the presidential battleground state as blatantly partisan.
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Pennsylvania’s Democratic-majority high court justices have repeatedly said they don’t want the political task of picking a card in the once-a-decade demographic adjustment exercise.
Still, they face more than a dozen maps, drawn mostly by supporters, and are stuck with the decision due to the standoff between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature.
One thing seemed clear: judges will give no special deference to the recommended map simply because it was passed by the Legislative Assembly.
Rather, they sought a nonpartisan, neutral base from which to select a map, a quest that could elevate maps produced by nonpartisan groups.
Judge Kevin Dougherty, a Democrat, pressed a lawyer for Senate Republicans to recommend how the court can find a “judicially neutral” way to make a policy decision.
“This court is trying to stay out of politics,” Dougherty told the attorney. “We said many times, ‘we have to do this.’ We are now faced with the development of some type of standard for considering a plethora of cards for which all clauses are constitutional.
Oral arguments lasted about five hours, with a decision under pressure from the timing of the primary elections.
Political control in Washington hangs in the balance, as courts and lawmakers in many other states ax the boundaries of congressional districts to last a decade, until 2032.
The fact that the state is losing a congressional seat — down from 18 to 17 U.S. House seats — due to relatively slow population growth reflected in the 2020 census complicates the drawing of the Pennsylvania map.
Pennsylvania’s delegation is currently evenly split, nine Democrats and nine Republicans, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4 million to 3.4 million.
For the most part, the judges questioned the lawyers in front of them about the criteria to use in choosing from the cards.
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The debate often involved whether to divide Pittsburgh between two districts.
The justices were also faced with the question of what to do with the recommendation of Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, a Republican, who raised a map put forward by Republican lawmakers over maps proposed by Wolf, Democratic lawmakers , supporters on both sides and civic advocacy groups.
In his report, McCullough gave it extra deference because it was passed by the Legislative Assembly. Yet Wolf vetoed it, not a single Democratic lawmaker voted for it, and Democrats largely view it as a partisan map that would tilt the delegation solidly toward the GOP.
Lawyers for the Republican lawmakers argued that McCullough made the right decision, but the justices were unconvinced by McCullough’s logic.
“I have difficulty with the articulation of Judge McCullough who somehow represents the will and voice of the people and that Governor Wolf’s veto also does not represent the will and voice of the people,” said Judge Kevin Brobson, a Republican. noted.
Later, Judge Christine Donohue, a Democrat, said “we all agree that neither of these two plans deserves any deference,” referring to the one backed by Republican lawmakers and the one submitted by Wolf.
The judges also seemed unconvinced by Republican attorneys’ arguments that their map was superior because it was produced after holding public hearings and garnering public comment, despite the governor’s veto.
Dougherty dismissed this, saying “whoever has the public hearing wins, and so we have both sides having public hearings excluding the other and no process.”
Chief Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, then asked a lawyer whether the maps produced by non-partisan people had a “head start” because they came from a superior process.
He specifically referred to those produced by Draw the Lines, a project of the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy good governance group, and a group of scholars who teach in Pennsylvania and major in math, computer science, statistics, geography and data. .
As it considers the maps, the state Supreme Court has indefinitely postponed the period during which candidates must circulate petitions to contest the May 17 primary ballot.
Judges could also delay primary elections.
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