HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday imposed a new congressional district map that upends previous boundaries, renumbers districts across the state, and gives a potential boost to Democrats in the 2018 House elections.
Under the court's redrawn map, districts more closely align with county lines, and only 13 counties are split among two or three districts. By contrast, under the last map, enacted by the legislature in 2011, more than twice as many counties were split among multiple districts.
In striking down that map last month as unconstitutional, the justices said the new districts should be as compact and contiguous as possible. Their new map, they wrote in an order, is "superior or comparable" to proposals submitted by the participants and interested groups during the legal challenge that led to the historic ruling.
The reconfigured map prompted a sharp rebuke from top Republican legislators, who said honoring it would create a "constitutional crisis." Extending a political clash that has roiled the state for months, they said they might challenge the map — or the justices' authority to impose it — in federal court as early as Tuesday.
"This entire exercise, while cloaked in 'litigation,' is and has been nothing more than the ultimate partisan gerrymander – one brought about by the Democrat[ic] governor acting in concert with liberal politically connected litigants," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said in a statement.
Drawn by redistricting expert Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor, and awaited by political observers across the country, it arrived after weeks of political and legal fighting, and a state high court ruling that the 2011 map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
Even with the new map, the state's congressmen will continue to represent the same constituents until January 2019, when the new House session begins. But voters will be expected to cast ballots on candidates representing the newly drawn districts. And experts said the new map could give Democrats a significant boost in their push to take control of Congress, adding several Democratic-leaning seats and making others that favor the GOP much more competitive.
Under the justices' order, Philadelphia remains divided into three districts, with most of it split between the Second and Third Districts. A portion of South Philadelphia is drawn into the newly configured Fifth District, based in Delaware County — a substitute of sorts for the First District, represented by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who announced last month that he would not run for re-election. The First moves north to Bucks County.
The redrawing could alter the political landscape in Southeastern Pennsylvania, where Democrats currently have three representatives from Philadelphia, while Republicans have three in the suburbs. Under the new plan, Democrats would be favored to win five of those seats, and the sixth would be a virtual toss-up, according to election analysts.
A Republican-controlled seat based in the Lehigh Valley is likely to become more competitive, and in Western Pennsylvania, where there is now one safe Democratic seat amid a sea of red, one new district is expected to be more politically balanced by incorporating more of Allegheny County.
If this map had been in place in 2016, President Trump would have won 10 congressional districts, two fewer than he actually won. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would have taken the remaining eight districts, although the tally in one district would be so close as to be essentially a toss-up.
In one win for local Democrats, the newly configured Fourth District is centered in Montgomery County. Critics of the 2011 map often pointed to the county, which was split into five districts and had no member of Congress living there. Bucks and Chester Counties also are now in districts largely formed by their boundaries.
"It's a big win for Montgomery County and Delco," said Philadelphia-based political consultant Larry Ceisler. "Montgomery County in the past few redistrictings has had three or four members of Congress." He adds that it "means a lot" for a county to have a "go-to member of Congress."
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement that he applauded the court's work "and I respect their effort to remedy Pennsylvania's unfair and unequal congressional elections."
Even before Monday's order, Republican lawmakers were vowing to challenge whatever map the court selected, saying the justices overstepped their authority.
Experts have said a Republican challenge to the map is unlikely to succeed. "It's really hard to see a path to success," Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said Monday, adding: "I would bet that this is the map that Pennsylvania uses for the 2018 elections."
Last month, the state high court ruled the congressional map unconstitutional and ordered a new one drawn in time for the May 15 primary election. The previous map, the justices said, violated the state constitution's guarantee that "elections shall be free and equal" by discriminating against Democratic voters, reducing their voting power in favor of Republicans.