by Lisa Soronen, executive director, State and Local Legal Center
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to block the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling that the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander (or manipulation of the boundaries). This is the fourth court in a relatively short period of time to rule that partisan gerrymandering may be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing two of those state-related decisions this term, one from Wisconsin and the other from Maryland.
In Pennsylvania, since 2012, Republicans have won 13 of the 18 congressional seats; however, they have never received more than 55.5 percent of the vote. In a brief order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the redistricting plan “clearly, plainly, and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
In January 2018, a three-judge federal court struck down North Carolina’s 2016 congressional redistricting plan and concluded it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The court ordered the state legislature to come up with a new plan. The Supreme Court put that order on hold, allowing the Republican legislators who were defending the plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.
What is different in this case?
We don’t know for sure, although Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog offers this explanation: “The state supreme court relied on the state constitution, of which it (rather than the U.S. Supreme Court) is generally the final arbiter; and the state supreme court has not yet issued an order describing its reasoning in any detail. However, the fact that Alito did not refer the request to the full court, as Chief Justice John Roberts did with the North Carolina case, strongly suggests that he did not view the case as an even remotely close call.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has given the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the governor until February 15 to come up with a new redistricting map or the court will draw one itself.