A state-level challenge to how congressional districts were drawn by Republicans six years ago will proceed on a compressed schedule, a closely divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The Supreme Court's 4-3 decision overturned a lower court judge's ruling last month that had put the dispute on hold.
The order said the case "involves issues of immediate public importance" and gave Commonwealth Court only until Dec. 31 to issue findings of fact and legal conclusions.
"We are thrilled that Pennsylvania voters will have their day in court," said Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center and part of a team that represents the plaintiffs, a group that includes people who live in each of the 18 districts and the state's League of Women Voters.
"I think the average citizen doesn't have to do more than look at the distorted shapes of these districts to understand that something is very much amiss," McKenzie said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai, the top-ranking Republicans in the Legislature, sought the delay, arguing a pending U.S. Supreme Court caseshould be resolved first.
"Although disappointed by today's decision, the plaintiffs have not prevailed on anything but the right to be heard," said Drew Crompton, a veteran Senate lawyer who is Scarnati's chief aide. "Sen. Scarnati will defend the constitutional 2011 maps in Commonwealth Court and federal court over the next months. I continue to be stunned by the judiciary speed in light of the fact that it took six years for the plaintiffs to file these suits."
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Turzai, noted the map got some Democratic votes and predicted the challenge ultimately will fail.
"Regardless of when this action is heard or who hears it, the congressional map — which has been in effect for three congressional elections — will be upheld," Miskin said.
The four justices in the majority ordered Commonwealth Court's president judge to assign the case to a judge who will oversee "all necessary and appropriate discovery, pretrial and trial proceedings so as to create an evidentiary record on which the petitioners' claims may be decided."
The defendants also include state elections officials, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.
Wolf's lawyers have not opposed the application to the Supreme Court and did not support the attempt to delay the case.
The governor's press secretary issued a statement saying Wolf wants to get partisanship and special interests out of the redistricting process.
"While Gov. Wolf continues to evaluate his approach to this lawsuit pertaining to districts drawn and adopted under the previous administration, (he) believes that opponents of gerrymandering deserve to be heard," said Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott.
Stack, a state senator when the districts were drawn in 2011, said his party was cut out of the process and accused Republican leaders of contorting boundary lines to retain a partisan advantage.
"Delaying this case for any reason is denying citizens their right to free and fair elections," Stack said in a statement. "This case will lay bare the partisan motivation behind the drawing of the 2011 map and potentially force a changed landscape for 2018."
The three dissenting justices include both Republicans on the high court, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Sallie Mundy, as well as Democratic Justice Max Baer. Saylor won a retention vote on Tuesday, and Mundy was elected to a full term after serving as an appointee since last year. They did not issue a dissenting opinion.