Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pennsylvania Supreme Court throws out assembly redistricting

York Daily Record

A narrowly divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated a plan to redraw state House and Senate district lines, calling the redistricting approach "contrary to law" and throwing into disarray plans by candidates and parties for this year's General Assembly races.
The justices voted 4-3 to send the plan back to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The majority said their written opinion in the case, which will lay out their reasoning, would be released later.
The two-page order said current district lines will remain in force until the commission comes up with a new plan that passes legal muster.
The commission consists of the Republican and Democratic floor leaders from the House and Senate, along with a fifth member, an appointed judge.
The plan the court threw out was opposed by Senate Democrats and others, who argued in a court session Monday that there was not sufficient reason to split some counties and towns, and that decisions were overly driven by political considerations.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, who among the commission members cast the lone "no" vote on the final plan, said he was pleased with the ruling and would have further comment about it in the near future.
The office of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said he was working on a statement, and messages seeking comment were not returned by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, or Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
The fifth member is Stephen J. McEwen Jr., president judge emeritus of the state Superior Court, a Republican. McEwen, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court, did not immediately return a phone message.
The one-paragraph dissenting statement, written by Justice Thomas Saylor and joined by justices J. Michael Eakin and Joan Orie Melvin, said they were not persuaded the plan was contrary to law "as reflected in the existing precedent."
"Although I am receptive to the concern that past decisions of the court may suggest an unnecessarily stringent approach to equalization of population as between voting districts, I believe this could be addressed via prospective guidance from the court," Saylor wrote.
The plan the commission developed moved some House and Senate districts across the state, and Senate Democrats argued they were able to produce a map that divided far fewer municipalities and counties.
The Pennsylvania Constitution says the 50 Senate and 203 House districts need to be "of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable," and that only "absolutely necessary" divisions should be made to counties, cities, towns, boroughs, townships or wards.
During three hours of oral argument on Monday over nine challenges to the plan, the commission's lawyer, Joseph Del Sole, said producing districts with nearly equal population was the priority, based on previous Supreme Court decisions.
"This court is being asked to reject 40 years of jurisprudence in order to sustain the appeal," Del Sole told the court.
But Justice Max Baer, who joined the majority to reject the plan, questioned whether the court was being asked to uphold the plan simply because it had never invalidated one in the past.
"That's a self-fulfilling prophesy, isn't it?" Baer said Monday.
Part of the court order changed certain deadlines for the primary petition process for candidates, and the majority said any signatures on nominating petitions that were collected on Tuesday and Wednesday, the first two days of the three-week petition circulation period, would be considered valid.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Republican, joined Democrats Baer, Seamus P. McCaffery and Debra McCloskey Todd in ruling against the plan. 

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