Court moved too quickly on redistricting

After ruling the state’s map of congressional districts unconstitutionally gerrymandered, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should have stopped there.

By drawing its own map and ordering it implemented for the upcoming elections, the court has exceeded its authority and brought confusion to the political process.

Yet that isn’t the half of it. Republican lawmakers, rightly angry with the four Democratic justices who chose to legislate from the bench, are planning legal action to stay the court’s order. That portends even more uncertainty as the May 15 primary bears down on candidates, voters and elections officials.

There was a voice of reason in the court’s inner sanctum, and it belonged to a fifth Democratic justice, Max Baer, who joined the two Republicans on the bench in dissenting from last week’s ruling.

While Justice Baer agreed that the map of congressional districts in place since 2011 was flawed, he said it should be left in place for this year’s elections because the Legislature lacked ample time to draw a replacement. Justice Baer said that was his position “throughout these proceedings.”

On Jan. 22, the court threw out the congressional district map, giving the GOP-controlled Legislature until Feb. 9 to come up with a new one and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, until Feb. 15 to sign off on it.

The Legislature and governor didn’t agree to a new map by that timetable, so on Monday four Democratic justices — Debra McCloskey Todd, Christine Donohue, Kevin M. Dougherty and David N. Wecht — issued their own map. It’s widely believed to benefit Democrats, who now hold just five of the state’s 18 U.S. House seats.

While the court was correct to invalidate the gerrymandered map, it has mishandled virtually every other aspect of the case. It gave the Legislature an unrealistic timetable for drawing a new map — as Justice Baer noted — and its decision to craft its own was a naked usurpation of the Legislature’s authority over the redistricting process.

In rushing the new map into use, the court has given ammunition to those who believe it merely wants to put more Democrats into Congress to thwart President Donald Trump.

“It is a partisan map,” House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said during a meeting with Post-Gazette staff members. “It is designed to change the makeup of the United States Congress.”

The justices’ map shifts the boundaries of, and renumbers, the 18 congressional districts, in which campaigns for this year’s elections already were taking shape. That’s a lot of change for candidates and voters to make sense of before the primary.

It’s also asking much of the state and county elections officials who have to print ballots, register voters and manage other logistical issues.

It’s shaping up to be even worse in the current 18th District, where voters have a special election March 13 to select a nine-month replacement for former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy.

After deciding that contest, they’ll return to the polls in May, as will voters throughout Pennsylvania, to nominate congressional candidates for the 2019-20 term.

By that time, however, the voters in the current 18th will be split among the new 14th, 17th and 18th districts — if the state Supreme Court’s order stands.

Turzai said Republican legislative leaders may be mounting two legal challenges to that ruling, one before the U.S. Supreme Court and another before a separate panel of federal judges.

A ruling in another court could keep the current map in place this year, but who knows how close to the primary that might come, if it comes at all.

The state Supreme Court muddied the waters — and itself — when it needn’t have done so.