The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues landmark rulings benefiting the common good about as often as the Eagles make the Super Bowl. So, the court's ruling Monday that the state's congressional map "clearly, plainly and palpably" violates the state constitution was an overdue, welcome surprise.
But can the same Republican-controlled Legislature that created the unconstitutional maps be trusted to fix this mess?
The court blocked the use of the current congressional map in the upcoming May 15 primary, giving the Legislature until Feb. 9 to approve a map that meets the state constitution. If the Legislature fails to do so, the court will impose its own map.
That leaves little time for the Legislature to act. Then again, the Legislature created this mess by abusing its authority and drawing cockamamie districts that have nothing to do with equal protection, free expression or a functioning democracy.
Detailed databases that include the race and ethnicity were used to craft districts that enable elected officials to pick their voters rather than have voters choose them. Such gerrymandered districts essentially rig elections before votes are cast.
In the three congressional elections since the Republicans-controlled Legislature redrew the maps in 2011, the GOP has won 13 of 18 seats, even though the overall number votes in the state have been almost evenly split.
The state constitution requires districts to be compact and follow existing county lines and municipal boundaries. But that is not the case in most districts, especially the 7th Congressional District, one of the most gerrymandered in the country.
The 7th District, currently held by U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R – Delaware County), sprawls across five counties in jagged, haphazard lines, while avoiding population centers in Chester and Reading that are home to more Democrats.
Such blatant gerrymandering is what prompted a group of Democratic voters to ask the court to overturn the map, one of several similar lawsuits filed nationwide. During oral arguments last week attorneys for the defense admitted that politics played a role in drawing the maps, but argued the state constitution empowers the Legislature to draw the districts and was none of the court's business. That argument will undoubtedly serve as the basis for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of the state court's ruling.
The GOP accused the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court of also playing politics, since the ruling may cost Republicans Congressional seats.
All of which underscores why neither party should be able to draw lines that benefit themselves and harm their opponents. It should be in the hands of an independent citizens commission that is prohibited from using politics to draw district lines. Fair Districts PA (fairdistrictspa.com) is one group pushing for such a change, and has outlined the steps that it would take to get the necessary constitutional amendment. It's not a fast solution, but it's the right one.