Bar Exams in the Pandemic JURIST Digital Scholars
Pennsylvania Governor, Lt. Governor and League of Women Voters respond to Supreme Court stay request
Pennsylvania Governor, Lt. Governor and League of Women Voters respond to Supreme Court stay request

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack and the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters [official websites] on Monday responded to a request filed by Republican legislators to have the United States Supreme Court block implementation of a new congressional district map issued [JURIST reports] by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania [official website].

Wolf urged the US Supreme Court to deny the request, filed by President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai [official bios] last month, arguing [brief, PDF] that the state Supreme Court’s ruling on state constitutional matters should be dispositive.

[T]his Court has long recognized that it lacks authority to review whether a state court has correctly interpreted that state’s own laws. … [O]ver a century ago, this Court said that it was “obvious” that a state court’s interpretations of its constitutional provisions regarding electoral districts was “conclusive on that subject.” … That rule resolves this case. In the decision at issue, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Pennsylvania legislature violated the Pennsylvania Constitution when it drew the state’s 2011 congressional map for the purpose of achieving partisan advantage. The Pennsylvania court made clear that its decision rested, from start to finish, “sole[ly]” on state-law grounds. … That decision is accordingly “conclusive on th[e] subject,” and this Court has no basis to review it.

Wolf called the arguments of Republican state legislators challenging the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling “as weak as it sounds,” saying that “neither precedent nor the fundamental precepts of our federal structure support it.”

Stack focused [brief, PDF] on the legislative process following the state Supreme Court’s order, saying that the legislators’ behavior “reflects a strategy of defiance rather than an effort at compliance.” Stack noted that the legislators had “produced a remedial map” before the court-imposed deadline but “failed to even present that map to the General Assembly for consideration.” Stack also argued that the state Supreme Court’s requirement that congressional districts be compact, contiguous and equal [JURIST report] was clearly in play during oral arguments, was agreed to by the legislators’ counsel at that time, and was the basis for expert testimony reviewed by the Supreme Court. Stack described the legislators’ “technical expertise and capabilities” in drawing new district maps and concluded that they “cannot be permitted to repackage their failure to timely legislate a remedial map as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court usurping their legislative authority”

In addition to making arguments similar to those of Wolf and Stack, the League of Women Voters (LOWV) argued [brief, PDF] that the legislators should be barred by judicial estoppel from urging the federal Supreme Court to intervene.

If this Court were to grant a stay, Applicants will have obtained two simultaneous stays in two different courts based on diametrically opposed positions: (1) a stay in [an earlier federal district court case] based on the argument that state courts have primary authority to review and remedy congressional districting challenges; and (2) a stay in this Court based on the argument that Pennsylvania Supreme Court had no authority to resolve the challenge to the 2011 map. The judicial estoppel doctrine exists precisely to prevent such results.

The LOWV also argued that granting the request would “throw Pennsylvania’s election machinery into chaos” ahead of May 15 primaries in the state.