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Seeking "Good Enough" Pa. Political Redistricting

Plans to redraw political district lines in Pennsylvania are being argued in court

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRSIBURG – Lawyers representing Pennsylvania’s bipartisan redistricting commission argued recently in Philadelphia that their new proposal for state House and state Senate districts doesn’t have to be perfect — just good enough.

More than eight months after the state’s high court sent the commission back to the drawing board to rework its proposed district maps, justices heard a new round of arguments for and against the revised plan.

Opponents argued the court should repeat its decision from January because the redistricting commission’s revised plan still falls short of constitutional standards by dividing counties and municipalities to produce districts giving political advantages to one party or another.

“This plan contains more splits, more fractures and less-compact districts,” than required by the state constitution, said attorney Virginia Gibson, who was representing Amanda Holt in one of the challenges heard by the Supreme Court.

The Holt challenge figures to be key in determining if the revised maps will get the stamp of approval from the court. Holt is the Lehigh County piano teacher turned redistricting guru whose alternative district maps – with a focus on keeping counties and municipalities whole at all costs – were at the center of the Supreme Court’s decision to block the commission’s first proposal in January.

This time around, attorneys for the state said they did not have to produce a map that was better than Holt’s – in fact, they argued the political process inherent in redistricting made it impossible to do so.

Joseph Del Sole, the lead attorney for the commission, said the key difference is the commission is a political body consisting of members from both parties that has to seek consensus on maps.

“With all due respect to Ms. Holt, she didn’t need to get another vote,” he said. “That plan hasn’t been vetted.”

The state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission consists of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester;Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-AlleghenyHouse Majority Leader Mike TurzaiR-AlleghenyHouse Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny; and retired Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court as chairman.

In January, the court said Holt’s ability to produce maps that contained fewer splits proved the commission’s proposal was “contrary to law,” since the state constitution says existing political subdivisions – such as counties and townships – be divided only when absolutely necessary.

The constitution also requires that districts be compact, contiguous and as close to equal in population as possible.

The attorneys arguing for Holt said her map better achieved all of those goals, opposed to the revised one offered by the commission Thursday.

“The Holt plan shows how the commission should have done better without sacrificing any of the constitutional factors,” said Stephen Loney, an attorney representing Holt.

In Centre County, for example, both the commission’s plan for House districts and the map drawn by Holt would divide the county into three districts. While Holt’s plan divides the county without splitting any municipalities, the commission plan splits two municipalities in the county.

Gibson said those splits on the commission’s map were done specifically to protect incumbent lawmakers.

Del Sole argued the Holt proposal would put up to 20 percent of current incumbents into competition with one another. While there is no provision for incumbents to retain their districts during the reapportionment process, an established legal tradition allows the protection of incumbency, he said.

In January, the court voted 4-3 to reject the commission’s maps, with Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican, joining the three Democratic members of the court in the majority decision.

Since then, Republican justice Joan Orie Melvin has been suspended from the court pending the outcome of her indictment on charges of misusing taxpayer dollars during her 2009 election.

With the three Democratic justices expected to vote against the reapportionment plan, Castille is viewed as the likely swing vote, but he gave little indication of his thinking while listening to arguments Thursday.

Justice Seamus McCafferty, who voted with the majority in remanding the original maps in January, questioned why the commission did not significantly change some strangely-shaped districts in Philadelphia and the city’s suburbs that could have been made more compact.

“It just strikes me as somewhat odd,” he said.

Justice Thomas Saylor, who dissented from the majority opinion on the matter in January, seemed to agree with the commission’s attorneys that compromise was an intrinsic part of the process.

“That plan has to be able to garner three votes from a constitutional commission,” he said.

Even if the court approves the new map before the general election Nov. 6, the new district lines will not take effect until the 2014 election cycle.  The court ruled in February too little time remained to put the new districts in place before this year’s elections, and doing so would confuse voters.

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