HARRISBURG — After a protracted legal battle, the state Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania's latest legislative redistricting plan, saying the new maps comply with the state constitution.
The court ordered the revised maps to take effect for the next statewide round of legislative elections in 2014.
The redrawn maps had been the subject of more than a dozen legal challenges, from state Senate Democrats as well as residents in Bucks, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties.
Those groups argued that the new blueprint still unnecessarily split too many counties, municipalities, and other political subdivisions, often for political reasons.
Republicans who controlled the Legislative Reapportionment Commission argued that its revised maps addressed the concerns that caused the justices to reject its first plan in early 2012, forcing last year's elections to be based on maps drawn in 2001.
In their unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the three Republican and three Democratic justices concluded that the revised plan "complies with the Pennsylvania Constitution, which shall hereby have the force of law, beginning with the 2014 election cycle."
The decision has plenty of political consequences. Redistricting is a once-a-decade opportunity for leaders in both parties — but particularly the one that holds the majority in the legislature, as the GOP does — to redraw boundaries in ways that could help their party win future elections.
The commission had argued that when its members sit down to redraw districts, a key consideration historically has been to protect incumbent legislators. That way — or so the argument went — voters, rather than politicians, get to decide whether they want to keep incumbents in office or opt for a change.
Castille noted that the court was "not so naive as not to recognize that the redistricting process may also entail an attempt to arrange districts in such a way that some election outcomes are essentially predetermined for voters — 'safe seats' and the like."
Nonetheless, the justices said, the constitution did not ban such efforts so long as the maps did not violate a key provision: that the 50 Senate and 203 House districts be "compact and contiguous," and "nearly equal in population as practicable."
The revised plan, the justices concluded, is not perfect, but meets that test. Castille said in his 59-page opinion that the court found "no overt instances of bizarrely shaped districts" to support challengers' claims.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who oversaw the remapping of Senate districts, said the unanimous decision showed that the remappers had made good-faith efforts to provide a sound redistricting plan.
"We are disappointed," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), whose caucus had challenged the revised maps and presented an alternative proposal. "We think that we presented a far better plan that was more fair and balanced and equitable."
In the revised maps, a handful of districts were moved to reflect population gains or losses.
Several were redrawn in ways that Democrats argued made it more difficult for the party's incumbents to hang onto their seats.
In the Philadelphia area, for instance, the district of onetime Republican State Rep. Dennis O'Brien — now held by Democrat Ed Neilson — will move to York County.
Rep. Greg Vitali, a Democrat who represents the 166th District in Delaware County, contended that the new maps split the Haverford Township section of his district in order to protect neighboring Republican Rep. Nick Micozzie's seat, while "backfilling" Vitali's district with Democratic parts of Lower Merion and Radnor Townships.
"You don't have to be a political science major to figure that out," said Vitali. "It's all about putting party politics above public policy."
Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) said his district will lose inner-ring Delaware County suburbs such as Ridley Park and Glenolden, and gain additional divisions in South Philadelphia.
"There has been steady movement afoot to further marginalize certain populations by lumping them together and diluting their power," Williams said of the revised maps. "Despite our best efforts to avert that outcome, that's what you see."
Lehigh County resident Amanda Holt, whose self-designed redistricting maps were praised by the high court in its 4-3 ruling in January 2012 rejecting the commission's original remapping plan, said she was disappointed with the ruling, but had not yet decided whether to try to get it overturned.
Any such effort would be a longshot at best. Litigants can ask the state's high court to reconsider a decision, but the justices rarely do so.