In a 5-page order, the state Supreme Court ordered 4-3 that the map, known as the Carter plan, be adopted as soon as possible. An opinion was not immediately available. Four of the court's five liberal justices signed onto the order, while the other, Justice Debra Todd, joined two justices elected as Republicans in dissent.
The map was filed with the court by plaintiffs linked to the National Redistricting Action Fund, a dark money affiliate of National Democratic Redistricting Committee, while the case was argued by Democratic attorney Marc Elias.
The NRAF asked judges to pick the map when it appeared Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly would not agree on a proposal.
🚨BREAKING: Pennsylvania Supreme Court ADOPTS new congressional map. Court selects maps put forward by our clients (Carter) as new statewide map!— Marc E. Elias (@marceelias) February 23, 2022
Proud of the work @EliasLawGroup and @RedistrictFdn did to ensure fair maps in Pennsylvania.https://t.co/L8iDXaDR1l
The fund originally filed a case in spring 2021, but were rebuffed. A second NRAF suit in December was accepted. Then, all eyes shifted to the courts after Wolf vetoed the Legislature’s map in January.
Another dozen plaintiffs along with the Carter group submitted maps to the court. A lower court judge had advised the Supreme Court to pick the Legislative GOP’s map, arguing the vetoed proposal was closest to “will of the people.” In oral arguments Friday, the justices did not appear convinced by that argument.
Instead, the four liberal justices picked a map that, Elias’s firm argued, built on the court’s 2018 plan. The current map was enacted after the high court struck down a GOP-drawn map as a partisan gerrymander that unnecessarily split municipalities to Republican’s advantage.
The Carter plan, Elias’ firm argued, preserves “the cores and lines of current districts to the greatest extent possible, while accounting for changes in the Commonwealth’s population over the past decade.”
Pennsylvania is losing one congressional seat this year due to lagging population growth. The map fixes this by drawing GOP incumbent U.S. Reps. Fred Keller (R-12th) and G.T. Thompson (R-15th) into one district. Meanwhile, northeastern Pennsylvania U.S. Reps. Matt Cartwright (D-8th) and Dan Meuser (R-9th) stay in separate districts.
In a statement, Wolf, who submitted his own map to the court, called the Carter plan “a fair map that will result in a congressional delegation mirroring the citizenry of Pennsylvania.”
Political analysts have broadly agreed. Kyle Kondik, of University of Virginia, observed on Twitter that the seats of Cartwright and fellow Democratic U.S. Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (6th District) and Conor Lamb (17th District) would remain toss up under the lines.
The decision also allows congressional and statewide candidates to start collecting signatures to get on the primary ballot starting Fri., Feb. 25 and running through March 15. The primary election will still be held on May 17.
New PA map. Districts 7-8-17 are D-held Toss-ups. Ds helped by PA-17 (open Pittsburgh-area seat held by now-Senate candidate Conor Lamb) remaining a Biden seat, but Toss-up in this environment. https://t.co/WgFbwFk52b— Kyle Kondik (@kkondik) February 23, 2022
Legislative candidates’ petitioning is still suspended, pending legal arguments over the yet-to-be-finalized state House and Senate maps.
The order partially eases some of the uncertainty over Pennsylvania’s 2022 elections, but at least one legal challenge remains. A group of five Republican voters, including two GOP congressional candidates, filed a lawsuit in federal district court earlier this month asking for a federal judge to block the state court from implementing a map.
The case, which is ongoing, argues that the state Supreme Court must defer on election matters to the state Legislature under the U.S. Constitution. Until Wolf and the Legislature agree, candidates can instead run in at-large, statewide elections, under an obscure federal law dictating how to run congressional races when a state loses a seat.
Wednesday’s order marks the second time in the past five years the court has drawn the district lines. In a statement, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said the court’s decision “confirmed once and for all they do not abide by the state and federal Constitutions.”
“The process for creating district lines is clearly defined, and even if the governor refused to follow the process, it does not allow the courts to just pick and choose when or when not to follow the law,” they added.
House Republicans congressional redistricting guru state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) has even advocated for the at-large elections as the best legal option.
Attorney Adam Bonin, who frequently represents Democratic clients, disagreed. He argued that the courts frequently have a role in backstopping redistricting debates.
A set of 17 at-large elections would likely conflict with federal voting rights legislation, Bonin added, “which is why you have never seen” the at-large elections option invoked: “Everyone understands that this shouldn’t happen.”
Stephen Caruso is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.