Justices ignoring constitution

State court ‘should be ashamed’ for rushing redistricting

HARRISBURG — We’re nearly a week removed from one of the more consequential decisions rendered by this current iteration of our state Supreme Court, and we still don’t know how the court came to that decision.

Sure, all the people moaning and writing about “gerrymandering” in the state’s congressional district map are satisfied the map has now been ruled unconstitutional, and they apparently need no explanation as to how or why because … well, because they agree with the court.

If this had been a decision to, say, find all cities within the commonwealth imposing their own gun control laws in violation of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitution, with the court simply saying “they’re unconstitutional because we say so,” there might be quite a few people asking for the court to show its work, as it were.

However, in this particular case, the court issued an order, basically dictating they want the Legislature to comply with their ruling, but has yet to offer an opinion containing the legal basis for their orders and clear direction for compliance.

The Pennsylvania Constitution definitely provides rules about how to draw the district maps for the state House of Representatives and Senate, found within Article II, sections 16 and 17.

But no where in the state constitution does it stipulate rules for the congressional district map, nor are the aforementioned sections of the state constitution in any way applied to congressional redistricting in state law.

That’s why there are state lawmakers pushing for legislation to amend the state constitution to do just that.

For example, House Bill 722, which got a lot of play last week during a House State Government Committee meeting to consider legislation to reduce the size of the General Assembly, adds congressional redistricting to Article II, section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Attempting to add it surely signals the process of congressional redistricting is not currently provided for in the state constitution, or any state law for that matter. So how, exactly, are the five Democrats on the state Supreme Court applying the rules established for state legislative district maps to congressional district maps?

While most don’t seem to care how the court made that jump, it’s something deserving of an answer from the state’s high court.

Unfortunately, we still don’t have one — but I guess that’s asking too much when many of those same justices skipped town for Florida not long after they issued their unsupported order.

The court’s Democratic majority has given the Legislature until Feb. 9, to prepare a map, but has yet to offer their reasons for doing so.

I’d be willing to cut them a break if, as one of their number — Justice Max Baer — suggested (but was apparently ignored by his colleagues), their remedy was to be implemented for the 2020 election cycle, to avoid risking “serious disruption of orderly state election processes and basic governmental functions.”

You can take a bit more time preparing an opinion explaining yourself when the remedy — which may or may not be constitutional in its own right (particularly if the court decides to draw its own map) — isn’t imposed for another two-plus years.

But with about two weeks to go, the court should be ashamed of itself for, basically, putting a gun to the General Assembly’s head, i.e. draw the map by the deadline we’ve given or we’ll draw it for you, without any expressed defensible reason for doing so.

Some of the more ignorant, happy with the court’s “do it because we said so” ruling, argue the ease with which a new map can be developed in, now, less than two weeks.

The point, however, is the Legislature still has no direction as to how much “politics” can be involved in drawing the lines.

Like it or not, politics right now is part of the development of state maps, even with the rules established in the state constitution, and the process of drawing those maps has never been completed in two weeks or less.

The congressional redistricting process for the 2011 map took the better part of a year to complete, most of that occurring before the map legislation was introduced and adopted, in a bi-partisan fashion, by the General Assembly and governor.

Is the map drawn to have districts that favor one party over another? Sure, and that goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

Does that violate voting and civil rights? It didn’t seem to be a problem in years past and for past courts (both state and federal), but even if there’s a question of impropriety, it’s one for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide, since we’re talking about federal voting districts for which the only rules, at least in the case of Pennsylvania, are stipulated in federal law.

Maybe the court, with its Feb. 9 deadline, is hoping to remove as much politics from the process as possible (since that’s what the plaintiffs seem to say they want)?

Of course, a federal court in Philadelphia a couple weeks ago rejected a lawsuit that specifically argued there should be no politics in Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting process, and — surprise, surprise — the plaintiffs in that matter are now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider their case.

That Philadelphia federal court, just like a state court judge who recommended the state Supreme Court drop this matter, determined there are no legally-set parameters for the amount of political influence allowable in a process that is, inherently, a political process as laid out in federal law.

“The structural change plaintiffs seek must come from the political process itself, not the courts,” concluded D. Brooks Smith, chief judge of the Third Circuit, in the federal lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s congressional districts.

It would appear the Democrats on our state’s high court have decided against waiting for a structural change through the political process, legislating from the bench and ignoring the state and federal constitutions they all swore to support and defend … all in favor of the politics — the type that advances one political party over another — they, the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ supporters disingenuously claim should not exist in the redistricting process.

At least that’s the way it looks without any legal defense, as yet, offered by the court’s Democratic majority.