Supremes retreat to Puerto Rico

Posted by By at 28 January, at 13 : 59 PM Print

By Democracy Rising

A day after ruling that the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s (LRC) plan for PA legislative districts is “contrary to law,” three of the seven justices on the PA Supreme Court left for Puerto Rico without explaining exactly what about the plan is wrong. They’re attending the mid-year conference of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
State justices drop bombshell, hurry to tropics,  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Jan. 27.

Forget about the obvious absurdity of the PA Bar Association having its meeting in Puerto Rico. By leaving town without issuing an opinion, the justices have left chaos in their wake. According to news reports, the court won’t explain itself until sometime next week, leaving less than three weeks in the election calendar for the LRC to adopt a new plan and for candidates and voters to know who’s running for what.

It now appears that the only way to enact legislative districts that pass constitutional tests is to adopt a plan submitted by citizens as part of the case on which the court ruled. More about that below.

One who claims to know the end game is Justice Max Baer, one of those in Puerto Rico. Baer spoke to, saying chances are good that the current district lines will be in place for this year’s elections. By speaking about the ruling before the opinion was issued, Baer has invited allegations of unethical conduct:
Justice comes under fire for remarks on redistricting,  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 27.

The two other justices in Puerto Rico with Baer are Justice Michael Eakin and Chief Justice Ronald Castille. Baer and Castille are two of the four justices who voted to reject the LRC plan.

What are the legal boundaries of the state’s 253 legislative districts? No one knows, which means no one knows:

  • Who can run for office. In some cases, announced candidates no longer know what legislative district they actually live in and therefore don’t know whether they can be a candidate or not.
  • Who can sign and circulate nominating petitions. Both those who sign and those who circulate must live in the legislative district of the candidate whose petitions they file with the state.
  • Whether the signatures of voters who have already signed petitions will still count or whether they will have to be thrown away.

Before the ruling, the first day to circulate petitions was Tuesday the 24th. The Court’s order, issued on Wednesday the 25th, changed the election calendar so that the first day to circulate petitions was Thursday the 26th.

However, the court said, signatures collected on the 24th and 25th would still count, assuming that the circulators and signers are in the correct district. But no one knows that. The court order created a deadline of February 16th to file petitions. If the court’s opinion isn’t issued until next Monday, candidates will have only 18 days to get petitions signed, sealed, and delivered to the state.

Legal scholars speculate, based on a 2002 ruling on the 2001 redistricting plan, that the court objects to the number of municipalities that are divided in the LRC’s rejected plan. The PA Constitution requires that, “Unless absolutely necessary no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward shall be divided in forming either a senatorial or representative district.” See Article II, Section 16.

The number of divisions in the LRC plan has been a concern of citizen advocates as well, who joined some legislators in challenging the official plan before the Supreme Court. One alternative presented to the court divided fewer than half as many municipalities as the LRC plan, proving that a better map can be drawn.

If Baer is right, the court will have created its own Constitutional crisis. There is no dispute that population shifts have made significant changes in the number of citizens in each of the state’s current legislative districts. That is the entire reason for requiring new districts to be drawn every ten years after the federal census. The state and federal Constitutions both require that legislative districts be as nearly equal in population as possible to ensure that each citizen’s vote has the same power as every other citizen’s vote.

Whatever the problems the court has with the LRC plan, it has substituted new problems without providing either reasons for creating the problems or guidance for solutions.

Perhaps the only solution that makes sense is for the LRC to hold a hearing next week on the plan submitted by the citizen group with the goal of adopting if it appears to meet all constitutional requirements. That could happen in one day and yield control over the process to citizens, which is where it should have been in the first place. Whether the LRC, whose membership consists of legislative leaders, is willing to let citizens have the government they want remains to be seen.

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