Castille: Pa. Splits ‘Not Absolutely Necessary'

Assembly districts shape up like ‘wishbone,' 'crooked finger,' 'iron cross’ on rejected map

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday explained its reasons for rejecting the state's legislative redistricting plan last week.

One justice who disagreed with the ruling said the 2012 General Assembly races will have to be held under the existing, decade-old maps.

The 87-page majority opinion said those who challenged the Legislative Reapportionment Commission's new map of 50 Senate and 203 House districts showed there were numerous splits of municipalities that were not absolutely necessary.

It was also critical of districts that were not sufficiently compact, likening one Senate district to a wishbone, another to a crooked finger, and a third to an iron cross.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Republican, and joined fully by the three Democrats on the seven-member court, said the challengers also showed the commission “could have easily achieved a substantially greater fidelity to all of the mandates in (the state constitution) -- compactness, contiguity, and integrity of political subdivisions -- yet the LRC did not do so in the Final Plan.”

The majority opinion reviewed in depth the legal and historical issues involved in drawing up district maps, and the court's role in reviewing their legality.

“The constitutional commands and restrictions on the process exist precisely as a brake on the most overt of potential excesses and abuse,” Castille wrote. “Moreover, the restrictions recognize that communities indeed have shared interests for which they can more effectively advocate when they can act as a united body.”

The majority said challengers succeeded this time, where they failed under prior redistricting appeals, in part because they attacked the commission's plan as a whole, and showed there were viable alternatives with fewer municipal divisions.

“The 2001 plan was not challenged as a whole, and like every other plan since 1971, it was not challenged with compelling, objective, concrete proof that a large number of political subdivision splits were not ‘absolutely necessary,’” Castille wrote.

The ruling specifically did not lay out a number of splits, or level of population variation, that would be acceptable.

“`We ... realize that the absence of certainty is a frustration for the LRC, a concern ably articulated by counsel,” Castille wrote. “But, that is often the case when constitutional principles are at work, and particularly when competing constitutional principles apply.”

Castille acknowledged that the decision to throw out the plan has created uncertainty in the election season, which is now under way, with candidates circulating nominating petitions for the April 24 primary. Castille said the commission delayed in issuing its plan, which it approved 4-1 in mid-December.

The commission consists of the Republican and Democratic floor leaders of the state House and Senate, along with a fifth member chosen by the Supreme Court, Superior Court President Judge Emeritus Stephen McEwen, a Republican. Only Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa voted against the plan, and he and other Senate Democrats challenged it in court.

“In these circumstances, ones not of this court's creation, the rights of the citizenry and fidelity to our constitutional duty made the disruption unavoidable,” Castille wrote.

Justice J. Michael Eakin, a Republican, said he did not argue with the ``reordering of constitutional priorities by the majority,'' but said he did not see a need to make it retroactive.

Computers or not, drawing a new plan using new rules will not happen in time for this year's elections,” Eakin wrote in a concurring and dissenting opinion.

The majority said it would not predict when a new plan might be produced and implemented, but noted that the next plan will be subject to the constitutional provision that gives people the right to object and appeal to the Supreme Court.

“Should such appeals be filed,” Castille wrote, “we will decide them with alacrity, as we have decided the ones now before us.”

Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican whose sister holds an Allegheny County state Senate seat, dissented, saying “it is clear that there is no perfect plan” and called the majority's solution “both unprecedented and unnecessary.”

Thomas Saylor, the fourth Republican justice, also filed a dissenting and concurring opinion.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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