The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts can not decide whether gerrymandering violates the U.S. Constitution, and that solutions must come from Congress or the states. The decision does not impact Pennsylvania’s recently redistricted map, because the case was based on the state constitution.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that partisan redistricting can violate the Pennsylvania constitution,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s Arthur Hellman. “And that decision is not at all affected by the Supreme Court's decision today.”
Hellman expects to see more legal fights at the state level, following Thursday’s ruling.
“One possible consequence, especially in a state like Pennsylvania where the judges are elected, is this may have the unfortunate consequence of making judicial elections even more contentious and expensive than they have already become,” he said.
The Republican Party of Pennsylvania said the Supreme Court’s decision confirmed that “Democrat activists in black robes on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped their bounds,” said acting chairman Bernadette Comfort in a statement.
Hellman said Thursday’s ruling “essentially blesses” state supreme courts reviewing redistricting, providing that their constitutions allow it. “One of the features of our federal system is that states are not obliged to copy the federal model in really any respect,” he said. “They have to provide basic guarantees of democracy but the particulars such as this one the states can go their own way and many do.”
Hellman said a common solution, which was cited by the Court in Thursday’s opinion, is creating an independent commission charged with drawing Congressional districts. The nonpartisan group Fair Districts PA said the decision called for just such state action, emphasizing the need to create a commission with “clear standards” in the state constitution.
“We have seen too often what happens when politicians draw the lines and how party operatives will always push the limits in their own favor,” said Fair Districts PA chair Carol Kuniholm in a statement. “Bills to amend the constitution and the election code to safeguard the redistricting process and our elections have been repeatedly derailed in Harrisburg, and now wait for action in both houses. It is past time for our Pennsylvania legislature to bring this solution to a vote.”
The state's old, gerrymandered map favored Republicans, with 13 of the 18 seats held by GOP lawmakers. Democrats and Republicans are equally represented in Congress under the new map.