HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the new state House and Senate maps is a reminder that even in the most cynical of political activities, the power remains with the people.
In the official decision handed down Friday afternoon, the justices explained its 4-3 decision against the newly proposed state House and Senate maps last week and detailed what changes should be made for the maps to meet constitutional muster.
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Ron Castille said the proposal developed by the state Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which drew the new districts, overstepped the law by unnecessarily dividing counties and municipalities across the state.
Castille pointed to the work of Amanda Holt, a resident of Lehigh County, who offered an alternative statewide plan with fewer municipal and county splits.
“The Holt plan is powerful evidence indeed,” wrote Castille. “This powerful evidence, challenging the Final Plan as a whole, suffices to show that the Final Plan is contrary to law.”
Holt, a piano teacher-turned-political-wonk who has been at the center of the redistricting debate here, said she was “awe-inspired and humbled” by the Supreme Court’s ruling and her apparent influence on the decision.
Friday afternoon. “For me, it means that all the hours of work have paid off.”
Holt began working on her alternative plan more than 15 months ago, presented it to the commission at a hearing in September, and was the lead plaintiff on one of the 11 challenges filed against the final maps, which the commission approved in December.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which consisted of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny; and retired Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court as chairman.
The commission approved the final maps with a 4-1 vote on Dec. 13, with Costa casting the single vote against the maps. The Supreme Court heard challenges to the plan on Jan. 23.
With the new plan now rejected, the House and Senate district lines as drawn in 2001 remain the official ones, until a revised plan is approved by the commission and the court.
According to a memo released by the commission on Friday afternoon, all four legislative caucuses will present new maps on February 15 to the members of the commission and a final vote will be taken on February 22.
In a Friday evening news conference, Pileggi said the hope was to still have the primary election on April 24, as scheduled, but acknowledged that the date was “in jeopardy.”
If the state House and Senate primary dates have to be postponed, Pileggi said he would favor postponing all the primary elections — including the presidential primary — to avoid the added cost of multiple election days.
The majority decision did not touch on the question of whether the primary election should be postponed or should proceed with the 2001 legislative districts.
In a statement, Costa said the commission should approach the revisions with respect for citizen input and constitutional provisions.
“We have to do it right this time,” he said. “A new plan should not be rammed through the process, without due consideration for what the court has said about redistricting.”
Turzai said the commission met the constitutional and statutory obligations, but that the Supreme Court changed the rules.
“That creates undue hardship on the citizens of Pennsylvania and the proper functions of state government,” Turzai said. “We will, of course, move with all deliberate speed to meet the challenges in front of us.”
The first challenge for the commission may be to determine exactly what the court said, since they did not provide concrete rules for splitting counties or municipalities, but told the commission to value the constitutional limitation on splits as much as the constitutional rule on equal population in every district.
In his decision, Castille promised to allow time for appeals after the commission provides the revised maps.
Of the 11 challenges filed the first time around, only Holt’s and a challenge filed on behalf of the Senate Democratic caucus attempted to criticize the map in a holistic way. Other challenges focused on individual, localized issues, such as the divisions of West Chester, Phoenixville and Upper Darby.
In 2001, the Supreme Court heard a number of localized challenges and determined that a successful challenge would have to examine the state as a whole, Castille wrote.
The Holt challenge did exactly that.
In the opinion, Castille said the statewide view of the commission’s plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution’s requirement that municipalities and counties only be split “when absolutely necessary.”
Castille wrote that the Holt plan “shows that a redistricting map could readily be fashioned which maintained a roughly equivalent level of population deviation … while employing significantly fewer political subdivision splits with respect to both Chambers of the General Assembly.”
When it comes to redrawing the district lines, Pileggi said he was hoping for “more objective guidance” from the court with regard to municipal splits and population equality in the new legislative districts.
The commission does not have to adopt Holt’s plan, or any of the other alternatives presented in the challenges, but has been instructed by the Supreme Court to produce a new plan that will meet constitutional guidelines.
Castille, a Republican, shocked the Pennsylvania political world last week when he sided with three Democrats on the Supreme Court to reject the proposed maps. Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd and Seamus McCaffery joined in the majority opinion.
The other three Republicans on the court each offered dissenting opinions.
Justice Thomas Saylor concluded that the commission’s final maps were “constitutionally permissible” and said he supports the clarification of the appellate review for redistricting challenges, particularly in terms of the acceptance of alternate plans.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote of the Holt plan: "lovely on its surface, is not so beautiful when examined in depth — on the other hand, it may be a masterpiece."
The bottom line, Eakin concluded, was that the court does not know whether the Holt plan, or any other plan, proves anything other than that it is possible to divide fewer political subdivisions.
In a third dissenting opinion, Justice Joan Orie Melvin said the majority’s decision was “unprecedented and unnecessary,” and found that the commission acted in good faith by adopting the now-rejected 2011 redistricting maps.
Pileggi and Turzai filed a complaint in the United States District Court on Friday asking for an injunction that would prevent the 2001 district lines from being used in any future elections. The complaint alleges that those lines would violate the “one man, one vote” principle because of population shifts in the past 11 years.
“I think clearly the 2001 map is an unconstitutional map and should not be used for any election in 2012,” Pileggi told reporters.
A similar lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, last week.