Critics, proponents of redistricting make case before Pa. Supreme Court
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For the second time this year, the fate of new state legislative boundaries is in the hands of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court justices, who heard arguments Thursday on why a set of revised maps still fails to pass muster.
Those new lines -- approved five months after the top court spiked an initial plan -- turn the seat of Democratic Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, into a mostly suburban district and create some jigsaw-like shapes around Allegheny County where alternative plans were able to keep dividing lines tidy.
But creators of the updated boundaries argued during the Philadelphia hearing that the 253 new House and Senate districts divided fewer communities than their first plan and represent a more-than-adequate result from the inherently political process.
"I doubt that any commission could ever draw a plan where someone coming in on their own, not having to advertise it, not having to get public comment, not having to get compromise, not having to get two other votes [for approval], could come in and draw a plan with less splits," said Joseph Del Sole, lead attorney for the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
He added: "This is the process that the people of Pennsylvania expected and approved. It is a political process."
The unusual do-over for the four political caucus leaders and retired state judge who make up that commission was the result of a January Supreme Court decision. On a 4-3 vote, a majority of the justices ruled that state mapmakers divided too many counties, municipalities and wards in their plan. They pointed in part to alternative maps drafted by Lehigh Valley resident Amanda Holt as evidence that the once-a-decade boundary revision could have been improved.
The commission was ordered back to the drawing board, and the legislative elections that were gearing up instead were administered using the districts drawn following the 2000 census.
The revised maps still moved two legislative seats -- one House, one Senate -- from the Pittsburgh region east, but also adjusted dividing lines to lessen the number of split communities.
Critics told the justices -- who spent most of the morning considering arguments over the state's new photo identification requirement for voters -- that the commission again gave too much priority to factors such as where incumbents live instead of focusing on keeping towns whole.
An attorney for Ms. Holt said her maps and those from state Senate Democrats prove that fewer divisions could have been achieved.
"As this court directed, the most important factor is whether the raw number difference in subdivision splits is shown to be absolutely necessary," said Virginia Gibson, Ms. Holt's lawyer.
But some judges questioned whether the alternative plans perhaps relied too heavily on minimal divisions. Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, asked what role partisan breakdown among the districts should play, positing that a statistically pure plan could potentially flip a chamber in favor of the other party.
Another challenger pointed to the last-minute changes involving the 38th Senatorial District, which Mr. Ferlo represents, as a concern. Under current boundaries, African-Americans make up 30 percent of the population, while the new lines shrink that figure, said attorney Chuck Pascal.
He also questioned why the district was reshaped heavily to include most of the former 40th District. Mr. Pascal argued that Pittsburgh's 11th and 12th Wards have little in common with the suburban communities that will now share their senator, "other than maybe somebody from the North Hills occasionally goes to the Pittsburgh zoo."
An attorney for the commission, William Stickman, responded that the district lost the most population of any statewide over the past decade, and that it was no longer possible to keep it primarily a city district.
"It probably should have been moved in 2001," Mr. Stickman said, noting that it instead was stretched to include portions of Westmoreland and Armstrong counties. "What interest does somebody in the Lincoln-Lemington area of the city of Pittsburgh have with a farmer in Armstrong County?"
He also noted that the African-American population in a neighboring district would grow to 22 percent, up from 10 percent, due to the changes.
As with the voter ID case, no immediate decision is expected from the top court, which currently has three Democrats and three Republicans among its six members. Its seventh member, Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin, has been suspended while she awaits trial on corruption charges.
First Published September 14, 2012 12:00 am