A fraught redistricting battle in Pennsylvania has taken a small step forward.
A panel of three federal judges heard arguments Friday in a case over whether the commonwealth’s Supreme Court violated the federal constitution when it redrew congressional maps last month.
Both the plaintiffs and defendants acknowledged, the case doesn’t have any direct precedent.
Lawyers for two Republican state Senate leaders and eight GOP congressmen contended that the state court usurped the legislature’s power.
Their key argument is that justices only technically gave lawmakers two days to fix the map—not nearly enough time—because while they issued their original order to redraw the map on Jan. 22 they didn’t release their full rationale for that decision until Feb. 7, 48 hours before the legislature’s deadline.
Lawyers for the defendants—two election officials in Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s administration—disagreed with that argument completely. They said the General Assembly had enough information to spend the full three weeks drawing its own maps, but sat on its hands.
The defense also argued that, above all, the federal court has no authority to rule on this case, because it is fundamentally a state issue.
Judge Kent Jordan pushed back on the defendants’ assertion that the full, 139-page opinion didn’t substantively elaborate on the state court’s criteria for new congressional maps.
“What an unusual waste of paper,” he remarked to one of the defense lawyers.
But the panel was equally quizzical when it came to the plaintiffs’ argument, questioning their assertion that they had no recourse as a result of the state court’s short deadline.
“You are political actors,” Jordan said. “Why isn't the remedy, to the extent you have one, the act of passing legislation?”
Throughout the arguments, judges returned to the concept of chaos—wondering whether staying the state court’s decision would make this year’s elections less confusing, or more.
Meanwhile, a virtually identical case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could rule at any time.
The district judges said they would make a decision quickly, but noted that the higher court’s case could radically change the outcome.