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Republican congressmen jump into fight over Pa. congressional map with federal lawsuit

A group of Republican congressmen and state lawmakers from Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit Thursday over the new Pennsylvania congressional map.

The new congressional districts in southeastern Pennsylvania under the map imposed Monday by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The new congressional districts in southeastern Pennsylvania under the map imposed Monday by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.Read moreStaff graphic

HARRISBURG — With campaign deadlines approaching, a group of Republican congressmen from Pennsylvania, joined by two state lawmakers, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court here Thursday asking it to block a new congressional district map from being used in the upcoming primary and general elections.

Instead, they want the elections to be run under the previous map that was adopted in 2011 — the same map that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out last month as a partisan gerrymander.

"Our concerns stem from the attack on the [U.S.] Constitution initiated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — not the design of a map," state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) said in a statement. "We are unwilling to acquiesce to the court's attempt to hijack the functions of the legislative and executive branches."

Within hours of the new suit being filed, multiple groups said they would seek to intervene in the case to defend the map in court, as they had promised earlier in the week.

"It is time for legislative leaders to take their jobs as elected officials seriously and to stop perpetuating legal shenanigans that will amount to nothing and that are costing taxpayers money," said Mimi McKenzie, legal director at the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs in the state case that led to the new map. They filed a motion to intervene Thursday.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder and backed by former President Barack Obama, also will seek to step in to fight the Republican legal challenge, a spokesman said.

This Republican challenge, filed by Corman, state Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), and a slew of Republican congressman from the state, is the latest in a flurry filed by Republicans in recent months. It came the day after state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene to block the map's implementation. Both cases ask the courts to consider whether the state Supreme Court, by drawing its own map, violated the U.S. Constitution's elections clause, which gives power to state legislatures to run elections.

Scarnati and Turzai also filed a request Thursday afternoon with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, asking it to stay its orders until after the 2018 elections and their U.S. Supreme Court appeal is handled.

"They're essentially making the same argument," Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, adding, they both were a "very, very long shot."

Joining in on this newest challenge are Republican U.S. Reps. Lou Barletta, Ryan Costello, Mike Kelly, Tom Marino, Scott Perry, Keith Rothfus, Lloyd Smucker, and Glenn Thompson. Seven of the eight congressmen on the suit are running for reelection in districts that are "drastically changed due to the actions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," while Barletta, who is running for U.S. Senate, represents a district "substantially altered" by the new map, they allege in the lawsuit.

Together with the state lawmakers, they cited the tight election timeline. Candidates who want to run for Congress must get signatures of support on nominating petitions. As it stands now, the candidates can begin getting the paperwork next week to start that process.

The lawmakers involved in this new challenge have asked a three-judge panel to hear the case. A decision by a three-judge panel could be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, bypassing what could otherwise be a lengthy appeals process.

That faster process could be crucial. State officials have said they are already taking steps to implement the new congressional maps in time for the primary election. Named as defendants in the suit are acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of State Robert Torres and Jonathan Marks, the commissioner of the state Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State said in a statement that the department has "made significant progress" updating its systems and "will proceed on this course unless ordered otherwise by the courts."

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the prior congressional district map last month, declaring it unconstitutionally skewed to favor Republicans. The party's candidates have won the same 13 congressional seats in every election since the map was enacted in 2011.

Analysts say the new map creates more districts in which Democrats would have a realistic chance of winning, a boon to their efforts to regain control of the Republican-led U.S. House in November.

Experts view the challenges as a long shot, especially following earlier failed attempts by Republicans to stop the state high court with the same arguments. If one of the new attempts is successful, it could leave Pennsylvania voters in limbo in the months leading up to the May primary.

"They're basically throwing everything against the wall and hoping it'll stick somewhere" Hasen said.

The state Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, gave the Republican-controlled state legislature less than three weeks to draw a map and submit it to Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, for approval. When the deadline passed without a map that had been approved by both the legislature and the governor, the court imposed its own map with the help of a well-known redistricting expert. It released that map Monday for use in the upcoming elections.

In recent days, GOP rhetoric has intensified along with the last-minute appeals. Some Republicans, including a sitting congressman and U.S. Senator, have renewed discussions about the possibility of impeaching the Democratic state Supreme Court justices. Impeachment begins with legislation in the state House, and nothing had been introduced.

Asked what other legal avenues Republicans have, Hasen said he struggled to think of any.

"Short of the legislature passing new legislation that would purport to overturn this — that's possible," he said, "but in terms of court plays, [it's] hard to see what else you can do."