The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to step in and block a new congressional district map in Pennsylvania, again rebuking Republicans who are fighting hard to preserve a 2011 plan that has given the party a considerable electoral advantage.
The decision is a significant defeat for Republicans and means elections are likely to occur in November with House districts that are more competitive.
“The highest court in the nation recognized that this lawsuit was properly brought and decided as a state constitutional challenge and could not be undone by federal courts because the legislators were unhappy with the outcome,” said Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Public Interest Law Center, which helped represent the plaintiffs in the suit.
It is the second time in about a month that the high court declined to take up the GOP’s objections to the redrawn political boundaries. The latest request was referred to the full court and there were no noted dissents.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the former map in January, saying it gave Republicans such an advantage that it violated the state constitution’s guarantee that elections be free and equal. The court ruled that the map violated that provision because it diluted the votes of Democrats, thus making them unequal.
House Speaker Michael Turzai (R) said in a statement that while he continued to believe the map ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was unconstitutional, he would accept it and move on.
“We continue to believe that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped its authority in an unprecedented fashion when it legislated from the bench, by adding new requirements for drawing congressional districts which do not exist either in the Pennsylvania Constitution or the U.S. Constitution, and by drawing its own map,” he said. “Nonetheless, we respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and are prepared to move on to other issues of importance to the people of Pennsylvania.”
The state judges gave lawmakers three weeks to agree on a new plan with Gov. Tom Wolf (D), and said it would draw its own map if they couldn’t. The lawmakers failed to reach an agreement, so the court issued its own map on Feb. 19.
Republicans were seeking to preserve the map under which they consistently won 13 of the state’s 18 House seats ― despite getting only about 50 percent of the total statewide vote in these contests and trailing Democrats in Pennsylvania’s voter registration.
The map drawn by the state Supreme Court could allow Democrats to gain an additional three to four seats in Congress. Those gains would boost the party’s hopes of winning a House majority in this year’s midterm elections.
Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in January, after the state judges struck down the old map. Republicans argued that the U.S. Constitution only gave state lawmakers the right to draw congressional districts.
Justice Samuel Alito denied the appeal without referring it to the full court. Observers said Alito’s denial was a signal he did not think the GOP request had much merit.
After the state Supreme Court drew its own map, Republicans again pleaded with the Supreme Court to step in and block it. They had hoped the court might be willing to take another look after the state court had actually issued its map.
“I applaud these decisions that will allow the upcoming election to move forward with the new and fair congressional maps. The people of Pennsylvania are tired of gerrymandering and the new map corrects past mistakes that created unfair Congressional Districts and attempted to diminish the impact of citizens’ votes,” Wolf said in a statement.
Drew Crompton, a top aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R) said the decision from the Supreme Court was “disappointing.”
The decision came just a day before the filing deadline for the state’s May 15 primary. State Rep. Frank Dermody, the Democratic leader in the House, said the Monday decision from the Supreme Court meant Pennsylvania Republicans needed to “accept reality and move on.”
Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a plaintiff in the original suit praised the Supreme Court’s decision, but urged lawmakers to change the way districts are drawn in the state.
“We celebrate this success, but we know that it is not enough. Unless we can change how we draw both our legislative and congressional maps, we will be right back here in a few years,” she said in a statement. “That’s why we continue to fight alongside many organizations, policymakers and individuals from both sides of the aisle to pass legislation to implement an independent redistricting process.”