A request by Pennsylvania elections officials from using a map of the state's congressional districts produced by the state Supreme Court last month was in the hands of a three-judge federal panel Friday, at the same time a similar effort was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, eight Republican congressmen and two senior GOP state senators, argued that the majority Democrats on the state Supreme Court overstepped their authority as they declared a 2011 map an unconstitutional gerrymander and imposed their own district boundaries.
But the defendants — two senior elections officials under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and 18 Democratic voters who prevailed in state court — defended the legal process that resulted in the new map and predicted that reverting to the former map would create a cascade of other problems, including for mailed-in military and absentee ballots.
Under the 2011 map, drawn up by Republicans and signed by a Republican governor, the GOP has maintained a 13-5 edge in the past three election cycles, a period when Democrats prevailed in 18 of 24 statewide elections. Democrats hope the new map, widely viewed as more favorable to their candidates, may help them retake the U.S. House majority this year.
The two sides disagreed about how much time the state court gave lawmakers to craft a map, with the plaintiffs saying they only had two days after the high court issued a detailed opinion on Feb. 7 to submit something for Wolf to consider. But the defendants said it was actually more like 18 days, starting when the court majority issued an initial two-page order on Jan. 22 that was later fleshed out into the 139-page opinion.
The judges pressed lawyers for the Republican officials about why the GOP-controlled Legislature has done little more to pass a new map than have two leaders provide a proposal to Wolf that he summarily rejected.
"You're political actors. Why isn't the remedy, to the extent you have one, the act of passing legislation?" Judge Kent Jordan asked.
Attorney Matt Haverstick, representing the congressmen, said adequate time for a new map "takes a couple of months."
Jordan also repeatedly pressed the defendants about whether the state Supreme Court could have given lawmakers much less time, or even no time, to come up with a map.
"Can the Pennsylvania Supreme Court say, 'Sit down, you have no role here, we're just going to do it ourselves'?" Jordan said.
Defendants' lawyers responded that that wasn't what occurred before the state court began drawing its own map.
In a separate case, the top-ranking Republicans in the House and Senate who lost the state Supreme Court decision have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent the use of the new map. The three-judge panel in Harrisburg raised the prospect of simply putting the congressmen's case on hold until the high court makes a decision, given that it could dramatically affect how they rule.
Judge Christopher Conner generated laughs when he said his office called the U.S. Supreme Court early Friday to inquire as to the status. The answer, he said, "is that they're pretty busy right now."
A lawyer for the Democratic voters argued that if the new map is thrown out at this stage, federal law requires the state's congressional races this year to consist of a statewide at-large election in which the 18 top vote-getters would fill the 18 seats.
But an attorney for the Wolf administration cautioned that as more than 180 people have downloaded packets to run in congressional races, the state's voting machines may not be able to accommodate a primary with dozens and dozens of candidates. He said that when the state conducts at-large elections, candidates' ballot positions are determined by putting members of the governor's party at the top. He said that's not what the administration wants to see happen.
The three-judge panel did not say when they will rule. The panel members are Judge Jerome Simandle, a senior district judge from New Jersey; Conner, a Pennsylvania-based district judge; and Jordan, a circuit judge who formerly was a district judge in Delaware.