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Pennsylvania Supreme Court takes over congressional redistricting process

By Victor Skinner (The Center Square)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted an emergency application to take over the commonwealth’s congressional redistricting process, though the Commonwealth Court judge overseeing the case will remain as a special master.

The Supreme Court’s order granting emergency application for extraordinary relief lays out the process and timeline the high court will use to craft new congressional districts after Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto last week of a map approved by the General Assembly.

The order, issued Wednesday, cited “the impasse between the legislature and executive branches concerning the adoption of congressional districts,” as well as the “impact that protracted appeals will have on the election calendar” in moving to take over the case.

The order came two days after the Supreme Court issued a stay in the Commonwealth Court proceedings, prompted by a filing from the Elias Law Group LLP on behalf of Pennsylvania voters that requested the high court step in.

“Now that the evidentiary record is closed, this court should immediately take extraordinary jurisdiction, adopt a map as soon as possible, and provide all Pennsylvanians with the finality they so urgently seek,” the filing read.

Judge Patricia McCullough, the Commonwealth Court judge currently considering more than a dozen map proposals, indicated she would be prepared to rule on the case and provide a timeline for the upcoming election season by week’s end.

The order issued Wednesday gives McCullough until Monday to fulfill the promise.

“The Honorable Patricia A. McCullough, a jurist on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania who currently is presiding over the consolidated actions below, is designated to serve as a Special Master,” the ruling read. “The proceedings occurring in the Commonwealth Court prior to the issuance of this order, and the filings submitted to that court at its direction in furtherance of those proceedings, shall be considered part of the Special Master’s record.

“The Special Master shall file with this court on or before February 7, 2022, a report containing proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law supporting her recommendation of a redistricting plan from those submitted to the Special Master, along with a proposed revision to the 2022 election schedule/calendar,” the order read.

The Supreme Court is giving the plaintiffs and defendants in the case a week to review and file exceptions to McCullough’s findings before moving forward.

“On or before February 14, 2022, any party or amicus participant previously designated by the court below may file with this court exceptions to the Special Master’s report along with a brief in support thereof,” the order read. “This court will hold oral arguments on these exceptions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on February 18, 2022, beginning at 9:30 a.m.”

The oral arguments will begin three days after the currently scheduled Feb. 15 date to begin collecting signatures to get on the May 17 primary ballot.

The two Republicans on the seven-member Supreme Court dissented to Wednesday’s order, but Chief Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, argued the state’s election calendar demands action now.

“The threat of any appeal period from the Commonwealth Court decision to this court reduces the scant days available for this court to obtain briefs, study this complex and important matter, and render a decision,” Baer wrote, according to NBC.

Census data shows Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million grew slower than other states at about 2.4% over the past decade, resulting in a reduction of congressional delegates from 18 to 17. The current delegation is split 9-9 between Democrats and Republicans, with U.S. Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle not seeking reelection this year.

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