Every ten years following the decennial census the Pennsylvania state constitution requires the redrawing of legislative district lines to account for shifts in population. Under the best of circumstances it is a partisan, messy process that generally protects those in power and elicits howls of protest from those who are not.
The redistricting plan approved late last year by the Pennsylvania Reapportionment Commission was no exception to that rule. But the process veered into uncharted territory on January 25th when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the plan throwing the electoral process into chaos.
For those not attuned to the fine points of running for office the extent of the monkey wrench thrown into the election can be explained by the manner in which candidates get on the ballot. There is a three week period during which candidates for both the state house and the state senate must obtain signatures from registered members of their respective parties in the district in which they are running. The petition circulation period began on January 24th, the day before the high court’s ruling.
In a vaguely worded directive handed down with the announcement of its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered candidates to circulate nomination petitions based upon the 2001 redistricting rather than the 2011 plan. The problem is under any redistricting plan seats disappear in areas that have lost population, while new districts are drawn in areas with a population gain. By court order those new districts no longer exist, hence candidates cannot circulate petitions.
To illustrate the absurdity of the current situation consider the circumstance of State Senator Jim Brewster of the 45th district in Allegheny County. Due to relative population loss in southwestern Pennsylvania his district was eliminated in the now invalidated 2011 plan. Conversely, a completely new state senate district was created in Monroe County which experienced a relative population gain.
Under the 2011 plan Senator Brewster had no district in which to run. If the 2001 plan remains in effect for this year’s election cycle, he can seek re-election. Therefore, he can circulate petitions to gain ballot access. Back in Monroe County State Representative Mario Scavello was set to run for the new state senate seat. The seat has now disappeared leaving him no territory in which to circulate. But what happens if, at the end of the process that new district reappears?
These and many other questions were left unanswered because a week later no complete ruling had been handed down giving direction to the reapportionment commission as to what changes must be made to pass muster with the high court. That is because several of the justices headed off to a conference in the tropics, leaving mass chaos at home.
Although the Legislative Reapportionment Commission bears some portion of blame for the current mess because it dawdled until December to approve a new redistricting plan, the Supreme Court was derelict in its duty by waiting until after the petition circulation process was underway to issue a ruling. Each of the justices was elected to the court, meaning they are familiar with the process. They had an obligation to rule in a timely manner to give the commission time to correct the plan’s deficiencies in time for the election season to begin. Not only did the justices fail in that regard, but jetting off for sand and surf while the entire legislative election process remains in limbo is the height of judicial arrogance.
Add to this an undercurrent of suspicion that the ruling had more to do with the court’s demands for more funding from the legislature than the validity of the new legislative district lines and the Supreme Court once again has strayed into territory that undermines its credibility and breeds public contempt for the judicial process.
Members of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission remain hopeful of crafting a new redistricting plan that will meet with the court’s approval. Somebody must restore the dignity and order to the process stolen by the Supreme Court’s untimely action. For the sake of a fair election let us hope the Legislative Reapportionment Commission can get the job done.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)