Gerrymandering Bad, Court Decision Worse
By Leo Knepper
On Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion striking down the Congressional districts adopted in 2011. The decision requires that new districts be adopted by the General Assembly and approved by the Governor by Feb. 15. If new Congressional districts are not adopted by that time, the Supreme Court will establish new districts. (Why the plaintiffs waited six years to bring the lawsuit is open for discussion. However, a cynic would note that it coincided nicely with Democrats obtaining a majority on the Supreme Court.)
The timeline of the case or even the timeline required for the adoption of new districts is not the biggest problem. What is most concerning is the Court’s threat to adopt districts it devises should its timeline not be met by the legislature. Nowhere in the Pennsylvania Constitution is the Judiciary delegated the responsibility of creating legislative districts. The power to create Congressional districts is reserved for the General Assembly. The Judiciary may invalidate the General Assembly’s districts and require new maps to be drawn. The Supreme Court’s threat to create and adopt its own maps represents a dangerous departure from the separation of powers.
Make no mistake, some of Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts were among the most outrageous examples of gerrymandering in the country. The Court has the ability and authority to invalidate the districts, but it does not have the authority to impose its own districts. This would represent a dangerous precedent and makes the judiciary a super-legislature. If the Supreme Court is successful in seizing the power it has just granted itself out of thin air, we have more significant problems than poorly drawn districts. From redistricting, it is only a short distance to the Courts writing and adopting a state budget if the General Assembly doesn’t get it done in time.
The General Assembly adopted awful Congressional districts six years ago. The problem should have been addressed then via the Constitutionally provided remedy. In the long term, significant redistricting reform is necessary, and that can be accomplished via legislation or changing the state constitution. The Supreme Court’s decision represents a threat to the separation of powers, and that shouldn’t be taken lightly by anyone.