Redistricting may delay Pennsylvania primary
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HARRISBURG -- The April 24 primary date may be in jeopardy after the state Supreme Court on Friday explained its rejection of new legislative maps and Republicans filed suit to prevent voting under the old districts.
The state's top court issued an 87-page opinion declaring that the new maps adopted in December divided too many localities in an attempt to create districts with equal populations.
While maintaining a near-equal number of residents in state House and Senate districts is a priority, map-drafters also must pay greater attention to "contiguity, compactness and the integrity of political subdivisions" in setting boundaries, wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who was joined by the three other justices.
The five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission now must redraw House and Senate boundaries using those criteria. The majority opinion urged a public-comment period during that process, noting that any legal challenges also will need to be reviewed.
The court also ordered that the current districts remain in effect until the maps are redrawn.
However, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, on Friday asked a federal judge to bar the primary election from proceeding according to the 2001 districts lines. Republicans have filed several lawsuits arguing the 2001 districts are even more unbalanced in population than the rejected 2011 map.
A hearing on the request is scheduled for Monday morning in Philadelphia.
Also, without knowing how long it would take a new plan to become final, Mr. Pileggi said lawmakers will need to consider whether they should delay the primary contest.
"Without control over that length of time, it's hard to come to a final conclusion," Mr. Pileggi said in a teleconference with reporters. "But certainly the April 24th date is in jeopardy."
Democrats said that moving the primary is unnecessary because the Supreme Court has said the decade-old map remains in effect until a new one is approved.
"A new plan should not be rammed through the process without due consideration for what the court has said about redistricting," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.
The justices blamed the commission for not approving the maps sooner.
"We recognize that our constitutional duty to remand a plan found contrary to law has disrupted the 2012 primary election landscape," wrote the justices. "That disruption was unavoidable in light of the inexcusable failure of the LRC to adopt a final plan promptly so as to allow the citizenry a meaningful opportunity to appeal."
The political uncertainty spiraling out of Friday's opinion began nine days ago, when the justices heard a dozen legal challenges to the new maps.
Two of those complaints -- one from state Senate Democrats and another from an Allentown woman named Amanda Holt, who drew her own maps -- questioned the plan as a whole, an approach with which the court concurred.
The alternative map from Ms. Holt, a piano teacher and graphic artist who crafted the plan in her spare time, was "powerful evidence" that new district boundaries could be crafted that split fewer political subdivisions while containing similar numbers of residents.
"The proof is strong enough that we view it as inconceivable," wrote the justices, "that the magnitude of the subdivision splits here was unavoidable."
The opinion was silent on the issue of moving seats east from Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Pileggi noted. He said he expects the same districts -- including that of Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport -- will be shifted under an updated map.
Lawmakers will need to revise the unwieldy shapes of some districts, which the court said should be more compact. The opinion poked fun at several of them, likening one to a wishbone and another to a crooked finger.
But Mr. Pileggi said those analogies offer little guidance on how tightly districts must be drawn.
"What is the standard for compactness?" he said. "I read all 87 pages. I didn't find one."