The US Supreme Court last week denied a petition from Pennsylvania Republicans to invalidate the state legislative maps adopted by the 2021 Pennsylvania Legislative Redistricting Commission. This leaves in place a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that okayed the maps, a win for fair district advocates in the run-up to the November 8 midterms.
Every ten years, states must draw new lines for legislative districts, a process called redistricting. Redistricting has received a lot of attention in recent years, because advances in mapping technology has made it easier to draw finely-tuned maps. As a result, maps that dramatically favor one party over the other–called gerrymanders–have proliferated. These gerrymanders can be deeply corrosive to democracy. The Brennan Center for Justice, an independent and non-partisan advocacy group that focuses on the rule of law, succinctly describes the impacts of gerrymandering in one of their reports: “Regardless of which party is responsible for gerrymandering, it is ultimately the public who loses out. Rigged maps make elections less competitive, in turn making even more Americans feel like their votes don’t matter.” They also note that gerrymandering more often impacts communities of color, preventing historically underrepresented and marginalized groups from being properly represented in government.
Pennsylvania uses a five-person Commission to draw its state legislative maps. The Commission includes the Democratic and Republican leaders from the state House and Senate and a chair chosen by the party leaders. If they can’t agree on a Chair, the Supreme Court steps in and appoints one. This year, the Supreme Court appointed Mark A. Nordenberg, former Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. Nordenberg celebrated the decision, saying in a statement:
“The entire Legislative Reapportionment Commission team is gratified by the decision of the United States Supreme Court denying the petition asking that the Commission’s plan be subjected to yet another stage of review. We view this decision as a further validation of our committed efforts to ensure that the plan we adopted fully complied with the requirements of both state and federal law. This action of our nation’s highest Court also can be seen as a validation of both the 4 to 1 bipartisan vote within the Commission itself to adopt the plan and the unanimous decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholding it.”
Kerry Benninghoff, one of the Republicans on the Commission and the lead petitioner, had claimed that the Commission considered race too much when drafting their maps. The Commission responded by pointing out that population and demographic changes required new districts to be drawn in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Growth in Hispanic populations in Reading, Allentown, and Hazelton allowed the Commission to draw more districts that give Hispanic communities the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates. These new districts staying in place is a win for representation, allowing more communities to make their voices heard and participate in the lawmaking process.
Though Congressional redistricting gets most of the attention, lines also have to be drawn for state legislative districts and those lines can be gerrymandered too. This was particularly prominent after the 2010 Census. Republicans won major gains in the 2010 midterm election and used them to solidify their position in many states. This made it difficult for Democrats to win power at the state level, even if they were winning the votes. In 2018, for example, Pennsylvania Democrats won 55% of the vote for State House candidates, but only won 40% of the seats. Other states had worse disparities. In Wisconsin, Democrats won a majority of the vote, but only 36% of the seats.
This victory for fair district advocates comes as people are pushing back against the influence of partisan gerrymandering. A number of states have adopted independent redistricting commissions or other restrictions on partisan mapmaking. And the Brennan Center for Justice also noted in a 2021 report that 9 states are in a better position than they were in 2010. But it also comes as many worry about the state of American democracy and a case looms at the US Supreme Court that could remove controls on gerrymandering in Congressional redistricting. For now though, new state legislative maps in Pennsylvania are setting the tone for a new decade of politics.
JP Leskovich is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Suggested citation: JP Leskovich, US Supreme Court Decision on Pennsylvania Voter District Maps is a Victory Against Gerrymandering, JURIST – Student Commentary, November 7, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/11/PA-gerrymandering-decision.
This article was prepared for publication by Ingrid Burke-Friedman, Features Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org