Court Date Set for Challenges to Latest State Legislative Maps

Court rejection of the first plan sent the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission back to the drawing board this summer.  Now, a court date has now been set for challenges to the new plan.

The latest maps for state house and senate districts passed the committee, which includes leadership from both chambers, on a 4 to 1 vote in June.   Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa voted against the plan, saying it still had too many unnecessary county splits.

State senate Democrats are again among those challenging the plan.  The State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the 13 appeals on September 13th in Philadelphia.

The session will be broadcast live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.   Observers will be admitted to the courtroom at Philadelphia’s City Hall on a first-come, first-served basis.

The court’s decision will not impact the November election, since those house and senate seats are being decided using the old legislative maps.

Legislative Redistricting Plan Gets Final Approval

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has approved a new final plan for redrawing state house and senate lines; more than four months after the state’s highest court rejected the first plan.  But Senate Democrats are still not happy with the plan.

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa voted against it, saying it still had too many unnecessary county splits.  He says multiple splits were added for pure partisan advantage.  He called the map a total disappointment and says it’s another gerrymandered map.

Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi said they eliminated many splits from the earlier plan. He adds his caucus did agree on a number of changes requested by Democrats.

The new plan moves the Pittsburgh-area seat of recently resigned Republican Senator Jane Orie to a growing area in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The plan also moves five house seats, but both caucus leaders voted in favor of it.  Democrat Frank Dermody said it meets the constitutional requirements.   Seats  will move from Philadelphia to York, from Lackawanna/Luzerne to Monroe, from Pittsburgh to Allentown, from Clearfield County to Chester County and from Crawford/Erie to Berks.

The new maps would not take effect until the 2014 election cycle.

Capitol View from East Wing

Public Hearing Pending on New Legislative Redistricting Plan

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is gearing up for a May 2nd public hearing on a new preliminary plan.  Anyone who’d like to address the panel at the capitol hearing must submit a written request by Wednesday.  Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court threw out the Commission’s first attempt

The revised preliminary plan was adopted with a 4 – 1 vote last week.  One of the observers was Amanda Holt, the Lehigh County piano teacher and graphic artist whose own stab at mapmaking showed the Supreme Court that it can be done with greater respect to the integrity of political subdivisions.  “I felt like there was a lot of talk about compromise, and my concern would be that our constitution not be compromised in this process,” Holt says of the latest LRC meeting. 

Holt hasn’t formally requested it yet, but she’d like the chance to address the panel again at next month’s public hearing.  “Citizens have been able to make a difference in this process, and bring light to our constitution, and help parts of our constitution that were ignored in this process,” she says. 

Watching the process since the LRC’s first public meeting in March 2011 has been Common Cause Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman.  “I’m always the optimist, hopeful that we can still make some tweaks in the proposed plan, still have it better serve the people of Pennsylvania,” Kauffman says of the latest public comment period. 

The Commission’s revised plan would split about half as many municipalities as the remanded 2011 House and Senate maps.  The new maps are supposed to be in place for this year’s legislative elections, but the Supreme Court ordered that the 2001 maps remain in place until the process is resolved.

Capitol Rotunda Light Fixture

Special Elections to Coincide with April Primaries — Update

The state Supreme Court has ordered special elections for six vacant House seats to coincide with next month’s primary.  The high court’s order says the fundamental right to representation is at issue, and Philadelphia attorney Kevin Greenberg says 350,000 residents will now have somebody to represent them. 

“It’s likely some of these folks will be Democrat, it’s likely some of these folks will be Republican.  But these 350,000 people will be able to elect somebody to vote for them in the Statehouse and that’s and important right,” says Greenberg, who represents the 11-constituents who filed petitions with the court.  Greenberg says each of the six districts is represented by at least one petitioner. 

Speaker of the House Sam Smith had maintained that he was not able to call special elections until the new legislative redistrict maps were adopted.  But the legislative redistricting process is still not resolved, and the Supreme Court says these special elections will be held using the 2001 boundaries.

The opinion reads: “The district boundaries for the six vacant seats at issue here were set in the 2001 Final Reapportionment Plan, and the new members who would be elected to serve the remainder of their terms will merely step into the shoes of their predecessors – just as the Speaker and every other sitting House member who is currently seated under the districts set forth in the 2001 redistricting map.”     

Four of the posts had been held by Democrats, and Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn hails the decision as an important victory.  “Republicans have tried to delay the elections and silence the voices of Pennsylvanians, but today’s ruling is a stinging rebuke to Harrisburg politicians who have picked politics over property representing Pennsylvania,” Burn said in a statement. 

Three of the six vacant seats are located in Philadelphia, and one each in Montgomery, Lehigh and Allegheny counties.

UPDATE: Speaker Smith released a statement Thursday afternoon in which he said he would call the special elections.  However, that statement blasted the Supreme Court for ignoring the clear intention of the law, and “advancing its own veiled agenda.”

PA Supreme Court Rules on Special Elections

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that special elections for six vacant state House seats must be held in conjunction with the April 24th primary election. State House Speaker Sam Smith had been delaying the decision on the elections based on the uncertainty surrounding the Legislative Reapportionment Commission and the high court’s previous rejection of its new district maps.

The justices, however, ordered Smith to schedule the elections for next month using the 2001 maps, which will also be in play for the remainder of the House and Senate elections statewide.

The state Democratic party hailed the decision as a victory for the constituents of the vacant districts.


New Legislative Maps Still in Limbo

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has met for the first time since the state Supreme Court threw out its 2011 redistricting plan.  No votes were taken and the proceedings lasted only minutes before Chairman Stephen McEwen recessed the meeting until next Tuesday.  “It has come close, we’re not there yet,” McEwen said of the legislative leaders’ efforts to arrive at a compromise that can pass constitutional muster with the high court. 

Dominic Pileggi

Sen. Pileggi talks with the media following Wednesday's commission meeting.

Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) suggests that the April 24th primary election will be held using the 2001 legislative maps. “There is no way that we can have a new map in place in time for the April 24th primary to occur with the new map.”  Pileggi doesn’t foresee legislative action to move the primary date, but did not speculate as to whether additional court action will be taken on the issue. 

Republicans have filed legal action that contends use of the 2001 maps would violate the constitutional principles of “one person, one vote,” but Pileggi notes the state Supreme Court has directed them to use existing maps in the existing primary cycle. 

Neither Pileggi nor his Democratic counterpart would discuss details of the ongoing negotiations.  “All I can tell you is that we’re working together to try to figure out what we can do to incorporate a plan that adheres to the Supreme Court decision and to the constitution,” Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) told a gaggle of reporters after the meeting. 

Costa believes the courts have been very clear that the April 24th primaries need go on with the 2001 lines.  “We believe that’s going to be the case.”

Harrisburg's skyline

Legislative Reapportionment Commission Hearing Disrupted

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission had to delay the opening of its hearing this afternoon on a preliminary plan to redraw the boundaries for state house and senate seats, when protesters showed up.

As Commissioner Chairman Stephen McEwen tried to open the hearing, protesters from Occupy Harrisburg chanted “For those of you who will not be heard today, this is for you. Everyone has a voice.”  McEwen asked   “How long do you expect this to go on?”  He was answered with more chanting and declared a recess. 

When the hearing resumed, the chants continued for part of the opening testimony of Barry Kauffman of Common Cause, then died down. Kauffman raised concerns about the preliminary redistricting plan; then spoke about the protesters, saying “I fear the demonstration today was probably a manifestation of four decades of failing to reform this process. I really hope you’ll take seriously the concerns of the people, to make the government work for the people.”

State Senate minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), a reapportionment commission member, raised numerous concerns about the preliminary plan.  In a 17 minute opening statement, he said of the 19 senatorial swing districts, the plan alters 14 to increase the performance of the Republican Party and only 5 were altered to increase the performance of Democrats.

The proposal would move one Senate seat from southwestern Pennsylvania to Monroe County in the Pocono Mountains. In the House, it would add districts in Lehigh, Berks, Chester and York counties while eliminating districts in Allegheny, Philadelphia and Erie counties. 

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is scheduled to continue its public hearing on the plan next Wednesday in Harrisburg.

Preliminary Legislative Redistricting Plan Approved Along Party Lines

A preliminary legislative redistricting plan was approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission on Monday.  The vote was split along party lines. The approval came after a half hour recess to allow the legislative leaders  time to look over each side’s final proposed maps.

The preliminary plan moves a senate district from the Pittsburgh area, now held by Senator Jim Brewster, a Democrat, to Monroe County. On the house side, it adds seats in Lehigh, Berks, Chester and York Counties while cutting districts in Erie and Philadelphia, and two in Allegheny County.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) says there are two current Republican seats and two current Democratic seats that would be moved, even though the population gains in the state, in the aggregate, have been significantly in Republican districts.  He says the loss in population has most significantly occurred in the western part of the state.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) says six senate districts are currently based in Allegheny County.  He says combined, they’re more than 125,000 residents short of the ideal population for six senate districts., Four of them already stretch into other counties. He says the proposal moves the lowest populated district, senate district 45.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) says it’s not a fair plan, and not reasonable to all citizens and to their members.  He says the Republican map is not sincere; it does not follow the appropriate population numbers, the population change. He says the map also disenfranchises voters across the state and splits strong African American communities in Western Pennsylvania.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) called it bait and switch. He says the plan is not about fairness for the people of Pennsylvania, it’s about maintaining the Republican majority.

The commission is made up of the four leaders and State Superior Court Judge emeritus Stephen McEwen.  The deciding vote in the 3-2 tally was cast by McEwen. He set a November 18th hearing date to take public input on the preliminary plan.

The plan will sit for a thirty day public comment period. A copy of the proposed new legislative district lines was to be made available at the Commission’s web site,

Senator Costa told Judge McEwen he hopes they’ll be provided the opportunity to continue to negotiate the reapportionment process, to further refine the plan Costa says was adopted along party lines.  McEwen said he would certainly be open to further negotiation and compromise, and would be delighted to hear that negotiations had been somewhat successful.

The changes are based on 2010 census  numbers for Pennsylvania.

Judge Stephen McEwen