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Pa. congressional district map upheld as U.S. Supreme Court, federal judges reject Republican challenges

The new congressional map imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will be used in the 2018 elections, after courts rejected two challenges Monday.

The Pennsylvania congressional map imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Pennsylvania congressional map imposed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.Read moreStaff Graphic

HARRISBURG — Just one day before congressional candidates had to file nominating petitions, the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington and the federal District Court here both declined on Monday  to grant requests from Republicans to block the new Pennsylvania congressional district map from going into effect for the May 15 primary.

By improving Democrats' chances of picking up seats in an important swing state, the new map has already changed the landscape for the congressional elections, with more people expressing an interest in running and some veteran politicians reconsidering their chances of success.

The courts' decisions on Monday disappointed Republicans —some of whom will likely face a tougher path to re-election — and delighted Democrats, who are hoping to regain control of the House.

"For anyone who cares about democracy, for anyone who cares that every voter's voice should be heard, this is a great day," said Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, which represented the Democratic voters who brought the initial suit that prompted the redrawing of the congressional map.

Top Republicans in the state House and Senate seemed resigned Monday to the idea that it was the end of the road for their effort to stop the map.

"I'm sure we'll review options, but I think we're accepting the decision," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), who along with others brought the U.S. District Court challenge. "[We] don't like it, but that's life and we move on."

In a one-sentence filing, the Supreme Court declined late Monday afternoon to intervene in the case. The justices did not offer an explanation for their unanimous decision.

Resignation or glee — depending on political affiliation — then appeared to set in at the Capitol.

State House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), one of two legislative leaders who appealed to the Supreme Court, said in a statementthat he still believes the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped its bounds when it imposed the new map last month.

"Nonetheless, we respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and are prepared to move on to other issues of importance to the people of Pennsylvania," he said.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, applauded the courts' decisions. "The people of Pennsylvania are tired of gerrymandering, and the new map corrects past mistakes that created unfair congressional districts and attempted to diminish the impact of citizens' votes," he said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. District Court rejected the challenge filed by eight congressmen and two state senators, who argued that the state Supreme Court, when it imposed a new map last month, violated the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants state legislatures the power to oversee elections.

In a 27-page set of filings, the judges said that the Republican lawmakers did not have standing: The argument that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped on the legislature's rights should be brought by the entire General Assembly, not by two of its members or a group of congressmen, the court said.

"The plaintiffs are neither the Pennsylvania General Assembly nor a group to which Pennsylvania has delegated the commonwealth's lawmaking power," the judges wrote. "As far as we can tell on this record, the Elections Clause claims asserted in the verified complaint belong, if they belong to anyone, only to the Pennsylvania General Assembly."

The judges wrote that the court was not in a position "to opine on the appropriate balance of power between the commonwealth's legislature and judiciary in redistricting matters, and then to pass judgment on the propriety of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's actions under the U.S. Constitution."

The judges said that the issues raised in the case were "of high importance to our republican form of government" and that they understood the GOP's frustration. "But frustration, even frustration emanating from arduous time constraints placed on the legislative process, does not accord the plaintiffs a right to relief," they wrote.

The three judges — Chief U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Judge Kent A. Jordan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and District Judge Jerome B. Simandle for the District of New Jersey — all were appointed by Republican presidents and confirmed with bipartisan Senate support.

Already, both Democratic and Republican candidates had begun campaigning under the new maps. In some cases, that meant shuffling districts or reconsidering whether to run.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican in a competitive district based in Chester County, said he would file petitions Tuesday to run in the district. However, when asked Monday, he did not firmly say he was running for re-election. Costello has been a vocal critic of the new map, which changes his district significantly. If he were to file his petitions but drop out up to 85 days before the election, state Republicans could name a replacement on the ballot.

On the western side of the state, Democrat Conor Lamb appears to have inched out State Rep. Rick Saccone, a Republican, in the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy. That district will be drastically changed and renumbered under the new map.  That means Lamb will likely run in a different district, home to incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, and likely the site of a competitive Democratic primary. Saccone has said he intends to run in another, where he is expected to have at least one Republican primary challenger — State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January tossed out the previous congressional map on the ground that it had been drawn to favor Republicans, violating the state constitution. It gave lawmakers and the governor's office deadlines for submitting and reviewing a new map.

With those deadlines passed without agreement on a map, the Supreme Court, with assistance from an outside expert, imposed a new one. Overall, political analysts say they expect Republicans to have the overall edge in the new map, but it created more competitive districts and more districts that would favor Democrats.

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.