Federal court rejects election clause claim in Pennsylvania gerrymandering case

Federal court rejects election clause claim in Pennsylvania gerrymandering case

A three judge panel for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [official website] on Wednesday rejected 2-1 [opinion, PDF] a constitutional challenge to Pennsylvania’s electoral map. Although there was no unified majority opinion in Agre v. Wolf [JURIST archive], two judges found that Plaintiffs failed to bring a cognizable claim under the federal Constitution’s Election Clause [Art. I § 4 text].

Chief Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith held that partisan gerrymandering claims could not be brought under the Election Clause, writing:

[T]he Framers provided a check on state power within the text of the Elections Clause, but it is a political one—action by Congress.

Concurring in the judgment, Judge Patty Shwartz would restrict judicial interference [opinion, PDF] under the Election Clause to cases

. . . where a regulation so disrupts the voting process that a citizen’s vote is rendered meaningless, and all requirements for Article III are met.

Shwartz found that plaintiffs failed to meet this high standard and failed to show that the redistricting plan was crafted to dictate the outcome of elections.

The dissent, in a 148-page opinion [PDF], described the facts of the case in great detail and argued that there was a justiciable claim under the Election Clause. District Judge Michael Baylson would find partisan gerrymandering actionable under the Election Clause where clear and convincing evidence shows the legislature failed to follow traditional or neutral factors in redistricting. Baylson argued that the testimony, the strange shapes of the districts in the 2011 maps, the legislature’s failure to abide by normal processes, and its lack of convincing explanation showed that the legislature engaged in an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

The majority closed the door on an Election Clause challenge to partisan gerrymandering in this case but, other challenges to Pennsylvania’s 2011map persist. The other claims are under the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause and, as Chief Circuit Judge Smith points out in his opinion, such partisan gerrymandering claims are justiciable under Supreme Court precedent. Thus, this ruling is unlikely to have much effect on Diamond v. Torres [materials], which also makes claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, or League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania v. Pennsylvania General Assembly, [JURIST report] which relies on Pennsylvania’s constitution.