Creators to again defend Pa. legislative districts
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HARRISBURG -- State map-makers again will be defending their proposed legislative boundaries in Pennsylvania's top court, with at least seven legal challenges filed by Monday's deadline.
Several of those challenges, including two from parties who successfully overturned the maps approved in December, argue that the five-member commission that updated the district boundaries still split too many towns and counties in its revised plan.
Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit in federal court calls for the new maps -- revised to reflect population shifts shown in the 2010 census figures -- to go into effect for a special set of legislative elections next year, instead of waiting for the regularly scheduled contests in 2014.
The second round of legal battles stems from a state Supreme Court ruling in late January, which argued that the legislative leaders tasked with redrawing boundaries divided too many political subdivisions among multiple House or Senate districts.
Political candidates already were circulating petitions to get their names on the April primary ballot and were told that they would be running for the districts drafted in 2001 instead of the newly crafted set.
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission, made up of the leader of each political caucus and a retired state judge, then began revising their boundary maps.
The final set 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.
Still, the political officials and residents who filed court challenges say the panel fell short of abiding directions in the court's 87-page opinion to avoid divisions unless "absolutely necessary."
Amanda Holt, a 27-year-old piano teacher from Allentown who crafted an alternative set of district maps in her spare time, again filed a challenge to the commission's maps.
She cited her plan as evidence that the panel "could have readily created a redistricting plan that creates half as many subdivision splits while achieving better overall population equality and avoiding the numerous compactness and contiguity problems."
Instead, some changes were made to strength Republican voting advantages that led to divisions of Allegheny, Washington, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties that could have been avoided, according to another challenge.
"There were some token efforts [to reduce split subdivisions], but that was not a driving force in any way," said lawyer Cliff Levine, who is representing Democratic state senators in their appeal.
In Cumberland County, just west of Harrisburg, all three county commissioners, acting as individual citizens rather than as elected officials, filed appeals to protest the latest maps.
Commission chairwoman Barbara Cross said the plan splits the county into three Senate districts, which could weaken its influence in the Capitol. One of the districts was lumped into a district based in Blair County, more than 100 miles away.
Scheduling a hearing on the challenges will be at the court's discretion. If the maps withstand the court battle, the new boundaries will go into effect beginning with the 2014 primary election.
A group of Latino voters is seeking to have the maps, which would create a new majority-Latino district in the Lehigh Valley, go into effect a year early. Their lawsuit is pending in a U.S. District Court.
First Published July 10, 2012 12:00 am