Pennsylvania Supreme Court: equal, compact and contiguous districts are a constitutional requirement

Pennsylvania Supreme Court: equal, compact and contiguous districts are a constitutional requirement

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday explained [opinion, PDF] that traditional district-drawing criteria mandated the court’s decision last month to strike down [JURIST report] the state’s 2011 electoral map.

While the court delivered its order [text, PDF] finding that the electoral plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution [text] on January 22, it did not provide a majority opinion until Wednesday.

The 138-page majority opinion, authored by Justice Debra McCloskey Todd and joined by Justices Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty and David Wecht, provides a detailed recounting of the history and jurisprudence behind the Free Elections Clause [ Art. I, § 5 text] of the state constitution, which provides that “elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” In the court’s estimation, this clause is “a bulwark against the adverse consequences of partisan gerrymandering.”

In accordance with the plain and expansive sweep of the words “free and equal,” we view them as indicative of the framers’ intent that all aspects of the electoral process, to the greatest degree possible, be kept open and unrestricted to the voters of our Commonwealth, and, also, conducted in a manner which guarantees, to the greatest degree possible, a voter’s right to equal participation in the electoral process for the selection of his or her representatives in government.

Noting the difficulty in finding a judicially manageable standard [JURIST report] for determining when a redistricting plan becomes unconstitutional, the court returned to the standard for state legislative districts, first adopted in the 1873 constitution. Namely, the court found that, in order to comply with the Free Elections Clause, a district must be “be equal, to the extent possible,” “comprised of compact and contiguous geographical territory” and respect “the boundaries of existing political subdivisions contained therein, such that the district divides as few of those subdivisions as possible.”

When, however, it is demonstrated that, in the creation of congressional districts, these neutral criteria have been subordinated, in whole or in part, to extraneous considerations such as gerrymandering for unfair partisan political advantage, a congressional redistricting plan violates Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The majority opinion reiterates that the court’s decision is based solely on the state constitution:

While federal courts have, to date, been unable to settle on a workable standard by which to assess such claims under the federal Constitution, we find no such barriers under our great Pennsylvania charter. The people of this Commonwealth should never lose sight of the fact that, in its protection of essential rights, our founding document is the ancestor, not the offspring, of the federal Constitution. We conclude that, in this matter, it provides a constitutional standard, and remedy, even if the federal charter does not.

This focus on state law likely influenced the US Supreme Court’s decision to deny a request [JURIST report] to stay the case.

The court’s opinion in League of Women Voters v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania comes only two days before the deadline imposed by the January 22 order for the state legislature to submit a new redistricting plan to Governor Tom Wolf [official website].

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Sallie Updike Mundy [opinions, PDF] each filed dissenting opinions. Justice Max Baer filed a concurring and dissenting opinion [text, PDF].