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GOP heads back to court today to stop Pennsylvania’s new congressional map

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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg Nov. 19, 2015.
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State of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania congressional map imposed by the state Supreme Court on Feb. 19, 2018, starting with the May primary elections.

Pennsylvania’s gerrymandering legal fight will be back in court today.

A group of Republicans will try to persuade a federal court panel to postpone a state Supreme Court ruling that created new congressional districts.

The lawsuit was filed by eight GOP congressmen and two GOP state senators. It claims a Democratic majority of the state’s highest court had no legal authority under the U.S. Constitution to draw its own election map after declaring a 2011 map was unconstitutional.

Oral arguments in the lawsuit are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

The lawsuit is one of two appeals filed in federal court. The second one is before the U.S. Supreme Court but Justice Samuel Alito has not decided whether the appeal should be heard by the full court.

While the legal matters are pending, candidates are circulating nominating petitions to get on the ballot for the May 15 primary. But what those ballots will look like is anyone’s guess at this point.

Both appeals stem from the state court’s Jan. 22 ruling that tossed out the 2011 election map, drawn by Republican lawmakers, approved by a Republican governor and used since 2012. The ruling said the map broke the state constitution’s clause that says “elections shall be free and equal.” The decision said the map was illegally gerrymandered to give Republican congressional candidates an unfair advantage at the polls.

The court gave the Legislature about three weeks to draw another map. The Legislature’s top two Republican lawmakers did so. But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf rejected the lawmakers’ map in part because the full Legislature did not approve it. Wolf also claimed the map was just as gerrymandered as the previous one.

Four Democratic justices, over the objections of another Democratic justice and two Republican justices, then hired a Stanford University professor to draw a map.

That map, outside experts say, tilts more districts toward a Democratic advantage.

The court-drawn map also re-numbered districts. The Lehigh Valley area’s traditional congressional district, the 15th, is the 7th in the court map.

The district includes all of Lehigh and Northampton counties and southern Monroe County, giving Democrats a better shot at winning than in the 15th District. The 15th stretched from part of Northampton County westward over more conservative GOP terrain and ended near Harrisburg.

The federal lawsuit in Harrisburg claims the U.S. Constitution’s election clause gives state lawmakers the power and authority to draw congressional maps, not judges.

The lawsuit also claims the constitution does not mandate that congressional districts fit the standard described by the state justices: “compact and contiguous as possible, holding near equal number of residents and splitting as few election wards, municipalities and counties as possible.

Finally, the lawsuit claims the court did not give lawmakers enough time to redraw the map.

The final point — timing — could be an overriding factor in a decision.

The judges could decide to dismiss the appeal, finding the fast-approaching election does not give the federal bench enough time to get involved in a state court matter. Conversely, the federal judges could order a postponement of the new map, ruling the state justices wrongly rushed a new map so close to the election.

Either decision could usher in another appeal.

The lawsuit was filed by U.S. Reps. Lou Barletta, Ryan Costello, Mike Kelly, Tom Marino, Scott Perry, Keith Rofthus, Lloyd Smucker and Glenn Thompson. The other plaintiffs are state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebannon.

The defendants, who won the state Supreme Court decision, are the League of Women Voters and a group of Democratic voters.

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