The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state’s congressional map violated the state constitution and a new map must be in place for the 2018 elections.
The plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, argued the current map was improperly drawn to benefit Republicans. They alleged Democrats were largely packed into five congressional districts and the remaining Democrats were spread out among the rest. Republicans currently hold 12 of the state’s 18 House seats, with one GOP seat vacant.
“We’ve argued that the current map is the worst map in Pennsylvania’s history,” one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, David Gersch, senior counsel at Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer, said on a call with reporters Monday.
The Republican defendants are expected to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But attorneys for the plaintiffs said the high court would be unlikely to take up the case, since the state court ruled the current map violated the state, not the federal, constitution.
The Pennsylvania court ruled that the current special election in the 18th District, scheduled for March 13, will not be affected by the order, and will take place under the current boundaries.
But the court’s decision does throw a new degree of uncertainty into the midterm elections in Pennsylvania. The decision opens up the possibility that incumbents could be moved to new districts, seats could become open and districts could have new political leanings.
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“In the game of musical chairs — when everybody needs to sit down in a chair when the music stops — all the chairs have been overturned,” said redistricting expert Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida.
The decision will be welcome news for Democrats, who are targeting six Republican-held seats in the Keystone State.
It’s not clear how a new map might create more opportunities for Democrats. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys said Monday that their experts’ analyses showed five more seats should lean toward Democrats under a fair map.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs specifically named three GOP-held districts as benefiting from gerrymandering, including the 12th District near Pittsburgh and the 6th and 7th Districts in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Democrats were heavily targeting the 6th and 7th Districts as key takeover opportunities before this ruling. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried both districts in 2016.
The ruling could shake up an already uncertain environment in the 7th District. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan settled a sexual harassment case using taxpayer money. Meehan has denied the allegations. The new developments prompted Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales to shift its rating in the district from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.
The state legislature has until Feb. 9 to develop a new map, which Gov. Tom Wolf must approve by Feb. 15.
If the GOP-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor cannot agree on new districts, the court will adopt a new map. The court ruled the new districts must be “composed of compact and contiguous territory,” be as equal in population as possible, and not divide “any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.”
The goal is for a new map to be in place ahead of the May 15 primary.