Justice comes under fire for remarks on redistricting

GOP officials: Baer violated judicial ethics

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HARRISBURG -- The rejection of Pennsylvania's new legislative boundaries took a bizarre turn on Thursday as Democratic Supreme Court Justice Max Baer previewed the court's pending opinion and state GOP leaders shot back that he had violated judicial ethics.

The brief court order issued Wednesday, declaring that a five-member legislative panel will have to re-draw state House and Senate districts, quickly turned politicos into constitutional scholars. The state Capitol buzzed with theories on what the jurists actually meant in those paragraphs and how it will affect this year's elections.

Republicans who supported the commission-drafted plan generally urged caution until the court gives clarity on why the plan is "contrary to law."

But a full opinion from the four Supreme Court justices who rejected the maps isn't expected until next week. Democratic leaders declared that the current boundaries will have to stay in place, a reversal that would preserve three Allegheny County seats set to be relocated to Eastern Pennsylvania.

Amid that hubbub and speculation, Justice Baer revealed some details of the pending opinion to the online news service Capitolwire.com. The former Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge said the document will lay out new instructions regarding a district's compactness, acceptable differences in population size and whether districts can be divided.

Drawing a new legislative map based on those factors likely cannot be done quickly, he said.

"If they can do it in time to have the elections on these lines this year, that is fine, we are open to that. But I don't see how they can do that," he told the website.

Those remarks brought an immediate backlash from Republican Party officials, who said the justice's public remarks were against both the state constitution and the judicial canon.

"The fact that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge would make politically-motivated comments to the press on a pending court proceeding is absolutely outrageous, especially since the court's official opinion on the matter has not yet been released," said Michael Barley, executive director of the State Republican Committee, in a statement.

However, Justice Baer's comment regarding the illegal division of local communities wasn't shocking to legal scholars. When the last set of boundaries were challenged in 2002, a majority of the court's judges offered "a warning shot" on the issue, said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University Law School.

"They said unnecessary splits in municipalities and counties can't be tolerated at a certain point, regardless of what the political figures decide they like," Mr. Gormley said of that earlier ruling.

"The court either has to take charge of the reapportionment process if they think there are problems, or else it really is acting as a rubber stamp."

While Mr. Gormley said the court took a "responsible step" in issuing an order promptly, so that candidates did not continue to build their campaigns around districts that would be dismantled, some lawmakers whose political futures hang in the balance say they would have preferred clearer marching orders.

"I hope the Supreme Court clarifies this ASAP," said Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, whose district would have moved to Chester County. "It's chaos."

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster, whose Mon Valley district was to relocate to Monroe County, is getting to work circulating nominating petitions for his unexpected re-election bid. While his district still could be moving again in two years, depending on how the revised map turns out, he said the court's decision is beneficial for the region.

"I'm back from the dead," he said, adding that Republican state Rep. Mario Scavello, who was planning to run in the newly located 45th District, "will have to wait his turn."

But the saga has begun to wear on state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who would have had to run against Mr. Kotik, a fellow Democratic incumbent, under the rejected map.

Mr. White had begun to meet with municipal officials in the new towns where he would have been on the ballot, and was poised to sign a lease on a new office.

"I am circulating petitions this weekend in my neighborhood because I would hope that whatever my new district looks like, my neighborhood will still be in it," Mr. White said. "Otherwise, I have a whole other set of problems."


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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