Monday October, 9 2017
To quote rock legend Tom Petty, taken far too soon last week at the age of 66, "The waiting is the hardest part."
For critics of partisan redistricting, they now have to wait and see if arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court offer any hope of changing a flawed system.
Last week, the high court heard a case challenging the legislative districts of Wisconsin. Analysts say the case could have implications nationwide.
Critics say the case in Wisconsin is a textbook case of gerrymandering, defined as designing legislative districts to protect the majority party. The high court's decision could revamp - or retain - legislative maps in other states. The court isn't expected to rule on the case until next year.
Attorney Paul Smith, representing the plaintiffs challenging Wisconsin's maps, laid out the national implications for the high court. Smith told the justices that if they uphold Wisconsin's map, they would inspire a "festival of copycat gerrymandering the likes of which this country has never seen."
The case is being watched in Pennsylvania. A lawsuit has been filed challenging the Keystone State's legislative map.
Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini, who is handling the Pennsylvania case, said the court won't likely decide the civil suit challenging the Keystone State's districts in time to affect the 2018 elections.
Pennsylvania's congressional map has been held up as an example of politically-based redistricting at its worst.
Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, which is represented by U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan and includes part of Berks County, is regularly cited among the most extreme cases of gerrymandering. The 16th Congressional District, served by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, also has drawn barbs because Reading, which is largely Democratic, sits in a heavily Republican district dominated by Lancaster County.
The Fair Districts PA Coalition has held a number of forums and discussions in Berks to raise awareness of how gerrymandering disenfranchises voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that designing legislative districts on racial grounds is unconstitutional. But the court has never overturned a legislative map on the basis that it is too partisan.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid to overturn Pennsylvania's legislative map. But one member of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, said at the time that the court could reconsider partisan gerrymandering in the future.
Critics say gerrymandering robs citizens of the weight of their votes. In Pennsylvania, critics of the legislative map say the GOP crafted districts so they would be packed with Republicans to minimize Democrats' chances to win. While Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide, the GOP holds 13 of 18 congressional seats.
Both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in this poisonous practice in the past. In Maryland, Democrats have been slammed for drawing legislative districts to benefit their party.
U.S. Sens. John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse called on the high court to rule against gerrymandering. The Arizona Republican and Rhode Island Democrat wrote a brief to the court urging it to strike down partisan redistricting.
"Americans do not like gerrymandering," the senators wrote. "They see its mischief, and absent a legal remedy, their sense of powerlessness and discouragement has increased, deepening the crisis of confidence in our democracy. We share this perspective. From our vantage point, we see wasted votes and silenced voices. We see hidden power. And we see a correctable problem."
It's unclear how the high court will rule.
Chief Justice John Roberts worried aloud during oral argument last week that if the justices overturn the Wisconsin map, it could seriously harm the high court's reputation. He also suggested the court could be flooded with other similar cases.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the architects of the Wisconsin redistricting plan "kept going back to fix the map to make it more gerrymandered. That's undisputed."
Months from now, the justices will issue a ruling that either maintains the status quo or potentially blows it away.
Outside the Supreme Court, Arnold Schwarzenegger, action movie star and former California governor, reiterated his call to end partisan map-making. He said the court must act because Congress only wants to preserve its power.
"It's time to terminate gerrymandering," Schwarzenegger said.
We'll see if the high court delivers a legal ruling that inspires sequels around the country.
Ron Southwick, Assistant Managing Editor : 610-371-5010 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerrymandering faces supreme test