The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Thursday heard legal challenges to the way the state has been divided up to update legislative voting districts.
Sitting in Philadelphia, the 7-judge panel heard testimony for three-and-a-half hours, then adjourned without making a decision. A spokesman could not predict when the court will rule on the issue.
Voting districts to elect state senators and representative are redrawn every 10 years, using U.S. Census results to ensure all districts are similar in population. The state’s constitution also requires those legislative districts must be compact and contiguous and that counties and local municipalities should be split up into different legislative districts only when “absolutely necessary.”
Lawyer after lawyer stood before the justices to argue that the current redistricting plan, developed by the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, contains “excessive splits.”
This is the second time the legislative redistricting map is being challenged before the Supreme Court, which in February determined the commission’s original plan was unconstitutional. It went back to the commission for an overhaul. Thirteen legal challenges have been filed against that revised plan, many with alternative redistricting plans of their own.
Atty. William Stickman, one of the lawyers representing the reapportionment commission, repeatedly told the justices the commission’s current plan is constitutional, “the strongest in the history of the commonwealth” and should be “affirmed.”
“This plan has dramatically reduced splits,” maintained Stickman. He said the revised redistricting map contains 68 splits, reduced from 108 in the previous plan.
The challengers argued that the number of splits in the current plan do not meet the constitutional “absolute necessary” requirement or those for compactness and contiguity.
Atty. Stephen Loney said the plan still contains too many non-contiguous voting districts and serious compactness problems.
“The map of Philadelphia still looks like a piece of abstract art,” said Loney.
Stickman acknowledged some districts may look like ugly ducklings, “but when you look at the data behind it, it might be a beautiful swan.”
Justice Seamus McCaffrey said Mayfair, a small neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia, now has four different state representatives.
Those challenging the constitutionality of the redistricting plan acknowledged that political considerations also must be considered in redrawing the map, but stressed those are supposed to be secondary considerations.
They said political decisions made in redistricting can’t override the facts that legislative districts must have population equity, be compact and contiguous and that communities in those districts should be split only unless absolutely necessary.
“There is a political nature to these splits, as opposed to any other legitimate concern,” argued Atty. Eric Ring.
“Everyone understands that reapportionment is an inherently political process,” said Atty. Frank Rothermel, who told the court Lehigh County residents are among petitioners he represents. He said Pennsylvania has taken constitutional steps to protect voters from that political process. He also maintained there is no justification for the current map other than political survival. Rothermel told the justices: “You’re the only ones that can protect us from a redistricting plan that is too overtly political.
Redistricting can shift the homes of incumbent legislators right out of their own districts, which means they can’t be re-elected to serve that district. Atty. Virginia Gibson said considering incumbency can be appropriate, but that it is not a constitutional requirement.
Atty. Adam Bonin testified Montgomery County has almost exactly 800,000 residents, a sufficient population to be represented by more than three state senators. “Instead, there is not one senate district wholly within Montgomery County.”
Bonin said there are six senate districts, all straddling at least one Montgomery County line. “One encompasses three counties in all.”
He said Montgomery County residents asked the commission “to finally give them state senators who are wholly within the county – at least two senators responsive to Montgomery County and Montgomery County alone. This was not respected.”
Bonin also said Montgomery County could have 13 House districts without crossing any county lines. Instead, there are 18 districts that touch upon Montgomery County, seven of which straddle county lines. He said one of those also includes Bucks, Berks and Northampton counties.
Bonin said one Montgomery County municipality, Lower Merion, is divided into four separate House districts. “There is one Lower Merion, not four different communities within Lower Merion,” he said.
Stickman said Montgomery County is the state’s third most populous county and borders the first, fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth most populous counties. “So when you’re putting the puzzle together as a whole, using pieces of unequal size that don’t fit neatly together, it is absolutely necessary to split subdivisions.”
Ring said Delaware and Montgomery counties represent about 10 percent of the state’s population and contain 25 percent of the municipalities that are split.
Justice Max Baer told Stickman he was being attacked in a battle of thousand pinpoints rather than one mighty sword. But he said it’s not unfair or invalid if 13 or 15 densely populated areas of the state are complaining to the court about excessive splits.
Atty. Joseph Del Sole, chief counsel to the commission, told the justices that Pennsylvania has 2,563 municipalities “and we had challenges where from what, 15? Over 97 percent of the municipalities in this Commonwealth are not split. And a lot of those folks aren’t here. When we’re looking at splits, it’s got to be relative to the whole.”