Supreme Court Upholds Map in Pennsylvania

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:40pm

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Pennsylvania’s Congressional map, narrowly ruling that the district boundaries drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature do not constitute excessive gerrymandering.

But the court turned down an attempt by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia to prevent all other lawsuits seeking to overturn gerrymandered political boundaries, keeping alive the possibility of future court cases around the country.

The court’s 5-4 decision on Pennsylvania represented a short-term victory for Republicans, who now hold 12 of the Keystone State’s 19 House seats. In it, the justices rejected the arguments by Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that the district lines have been skewed so dramatically that they unreasonably favor the GOP.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist joined Scalia and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas in upholding the Pennsylvania map.

“We’re very pleased by today’s decision affirming that redistricting is a political process and Congressional boundaries can be drawn based on political criteria,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). “This practice is not new and is used by both parties. It is a victory for the redistricting process, and we’re looking forward to moving on.”

Democrats expressed disappointment with the ruling. But officials with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the party is still confident that some of its challengers and open-seat candidates in Pennsylvania will be competitive despite the current district boundaries.

“Democrats have strong candidates competing in Pennsylvania under the current map,” said DCCC Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “They prepared to run in these districts and they will win in these districts.”

Matsui singled out attorney Lois Murphy (D), who is challenging freshman Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) in a Republican-leaning suburban Philadelphia district; state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, the Democratic nominee in another Philadelphia-area district, which Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) is leaving; and real estate developer Joe Driscoll (D), the nominee in a competitive open Lehigh Valley district.

Two lawyers for Pennsylvania Democrats said that by refusing Scalia’s request to prevent all future gerrymandering lawsuits by a 5-4 vote, the high court kept alive the idea that judges could force redistricting reform in the future.

Scalia had argued that such legal cases should be prevented because these court challenges have produced no significant results in the past 18 years.

“The search for a standard goes on, but partisan gerrymanders remain subject to judicial attack,” lawyers Paul Smith and Sam Hirsch said in a statement. Wednesday’s “decision is a warning shot to legislators who care more about partisan greed than democracy and majority rule.”

Wednesday’s ruling is unlikely to have any bearing on a suit brought by Texas Democrats seeking to overturn the Congressional lines approved by the Republican-controlled Lone Star State Legislature last fall.

In that case, Democrats are arguing that the new Texas map violates provisions of the Voting Rights Act by reducing the number of “minority opportunity” districts in the state.

The Supreme Court is expected to hold a hearing in May to determine whether it will hear the Texas appeal. Even if the justices decide to take the case, they won’t hear it quickly, and the boundaries that endanger several Democratic incumbents will be intact for at least this election cycle.