Pennsylvania can keep its congressional map, a judicial panel in Philadelphia ruled Wednesday, rejecting an argument from a group of Democratic voters who contended it should be thrown out because the state lawmakers who created the map in 2011 gerrymandered it to help Republicans.
The court cast aside the argument that districts should not consider politics, saying partisanship is part of the system.
“The task of prescribing election regulations was given, in the first instance, to political actors who make decisions for political reasons,” Circuit Court Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in the majority opinion in the case delivered by a court that was split 2-1. “Plaintiffs ignore this reality.”
The ruling came a day after a unanimous judicial panel threw out North Carolina’s congressional map, finding it went too far to help Republicans.
It will be up to the nation’s top court to sort out which ruling was right – or whether there’s some wrinkle that makes them both valid.
The plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case plan to appeal in a case that would go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We filed this suit because we believe the elections clause prohibits gerrymandering. In North Carolina three judges said it did. In Pennsylvania two judges said it did not – and (a) third agreed with us,” lawyer Alice Ballard said in a statement.
She said that means four of the six judges in North Carolina and Pennsylvania agree with her side, while two judges do not. “Only the Supreme Court can make the final decision,” she said.
The Pennsylvania ruling is the latest in a spate of recent lawsuits on gerrymandering – including two others in Pennsylvania alone – brought as Democrats try to win the U.S. House of Representatives this year and establish new ground rules for the next round of redistricting after results are in from the 2020 census.
Courts have found in the past that it’s wrong to make maps to limit the voices of racial minorities. The latest cases focus on a different issue: Whether it’s OK to draw district lines to help – or hurt – political parties.
Pennsylvania is a political swing state by many measures. It’s been alternating Republican and Democratic governors, is represented in the U.S. Senate by a member of each party and voted for each of the last two presidents – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump.
But when it comes to the U.S. House, Republicans have dominated, winning 13 of the state’s 18 seats in each of the last three elections. That came even though Democrats received more congressional votes in the state in 2012.
Plaintiffs in the case argued Republicans drew oddly shaped maps to make a handful of districts where Democrats would have huge electoral advantages and more where Republicans would be likely to win.
The plaintiffs contended that that diluted their voice and resulted in policies that don’t represent Pennsylvania.
The main question in the case, which was tried last month, was legal: Is that kind of mapmaking permissible?
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said the Elections Clause in the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted to mean states can’t give either party an advantage.
One judge in the case, Michael Baylson, was convinced. He called gerrymandering “a wrong in search of a remedy” and said the Elections Clause provides that.
Lawyers for the main defendants, Republican legislative leaders, said there’s no such provision.
“For the past several months, plaintiffs have made dozens of strained legal arguments against the map and the majority decision once again invalidated the plaintiffs’ position,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, said in a statement.
A separate challenge to Pennsylvania’s congressional map is pending before the state Supreme Court, which has scheduled oral arguments on the topic for next week in Harrisburg. Legislative Republican leaders on Wednesday filed documents in that case, arguing the Democratic voters who sued “are attempting to achieve through the courthouse what they could not in the voting booths.”
Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.
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