January 12, 2012 | By | Posted in General News

PA district maps under attack before state Supremes

Voters, local officials and state lawmakers behind various complaints
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A group of voters who believe the new state House and Senate district plans violate the state constitution have joined local elected officials and some state lawmakers in challenging the new maps in the state Supreme Court.

Eleven challenges were filed with the state Supreme Court against the new legislative maps as of Wednesday, the deadline to file. The court is expected to hear oral arguments Jan. 23 here with decisions expected soon afterward.
The complaints upon which the petitions are based challenge the legislative maps from various angles. One suggests another set of maps that better reflect the requirements established in the state constitution. Another one addresses dividing boroughs unnecessarily and along racial lines, while a third complaint questions why a Democratic incumbent’s district was moved across the state.
View from another map
The group is offering an alternative plan, crafted by Lehigh County resident Amanda Holt, who is among the plaintiffs. Holt offered her maps to the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which drafts and approves the new maps.
“I think a true constitutional analysis requires looking at the whole state, and that’s what was done in this plan,” Holt said Wednesday. 
Her proposal attempts to cut in half the 837 counties, municipalities and voting wards split by the state House plan and the 167 such divisions contained in the new state Senate map.
Article II, Section 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states that “unless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided” when drawing legislative districts.
“By drawing legislative boundaries based on political factors and ignoring criteria in the constitution, legislators are able to pick the people who vote in elections, hindering the ability of voters to pick the legislators,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, which filed this complaint.
Snag in the primary election process
The state Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments on the complaints on the day before the state’s primary election process is set to begin.
That process, which starts with candidates circulating petitions and collecting signatures in support of their campaign, cannot kickoff until the court confirms the new state House and state Senate district maps that will be used for the next 10 years.
This year, the commission consisted of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny;R-Allegheny; House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny; and former state Superior Court Justice Stephen McEwen, a Delaware County Republican who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to be chairman of the commission.
The legislative reapportionment commission offered no comment on the pending complaints.
Split by new districts
But that has not stopped a pair of challenges filed on behalf of the mayors of Phoenixville and West Chester, two Chester County boroughs.
Despite their history of being in a single state House district, Phoenixville and West Chester have been split by the new district lines.
Samuel Stretton, the West Chester attorney who filed both complaints, said lawmakers acted in a “blatantly political manner” when drawing the new maps, which he said violated the state’s constitution and was done to ensure West Chester could not elect a Democrat in either of the new districts.
The West Chester challenge has 12 plaintiffs, including Carolyn Comitta, the borough’s mayor. The Phoenixville challenge lists only a single plaintiff, Mayor Leo Scoda.
Tough sell in court
Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said getting courts to agree to change the legislative maps will be a tough sell for the plaintiffs.
“Historically, they have not thrown out the whole plan,” Madonna said.
Madonna said the courts are more likely to uphold a challenge based on racial discrimination or the unequal size of districts than on county splits.
Stretton agreed that challenges typically have been unsuccessful, but pointed to a previous court ruling from 1987 that found “100 years of voting discrimination” aimed at the minority population in West Chester.
On that basis, he said, the challenge there may be successful.
"This fences out racial ethnic groups so as to deprive them of their pre-existing municipal vote," the complaint alleges.
Three voters from Delaware County filed a challenge in which they objected to the split of Upper Darby Township between two state Senate districts. Only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — which are too large to be contained legally in a single state Senate district — were divided on the state Senate map.
The plaintiffs in that case also argue that the split was intended to divide the municipality along racial lines.
From one side to the other
A fifth challenge, filed on behalf of members of the state Senate, all Democrats, takes issue with the commission’s decision to move one state Senate seat — the 45th District — from Allegheny County to Monroe County, and also questions the split of Upper Darby.
Costa, who is one of the 16 plaintiffs, was the only commission member to vote against the final legislative maps when they were approved in December. 
In court filings, the plaintiffs argue that a Republican-held seat, not a Democratic one, should have been moved, because the GOP drew the new map.
The borders of all the districts changed in the once-per-decade redistricting process, but the 45th District was the only one moved across the state from Pittsburgh to the northeast corner. It is represented by state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny.
Pennsylvania saw 3 percent overall population growth in the past decade with the increase in the east and the decrease in the west, according to census data.
Five state House districts also moved, with three of them leaving Allegheny County for new homes in Berks, Chester and Lehigh counties on the state’s eastern side. 
The other moves included a district, which shifted from Lackawanna County to Monroe County, and a district, which moved from Philadelphia to York County along the state’s southern border, another area of rapid population growth.
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