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A Pennsylvania Court sifts through a stack of Congressional maps, hears from those who drew them

People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – After state lawmakers failed to agree on on a new Congressional map, a state court will now pick a new one by Monday and it has 14 maps to choose from.

To that end, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough spent nearly all of Thursday hearing from groups that drew those maps during proceedings in Harrisburg. The court is also slated to hold more proceedings Friday.

Each is trying to prove that their map does the best job at carving Pennsylvania up among what will be 17 congressional districts. The state is losing one district due to population shifts over the last decade.

“This court has acted expeditiously and proactively as possible at every turn, so that in the event that the legislature and Governor (Tom Wolf) do not reach an agreement by January 30th, this court would proceed to do so,” McCullough said in her opening remarks.

Eight groups of lawyers championing most of those maps each argued theirs is best – either because certain people or computer programs had a hand in it, or because it focuses on certain things like population shifts or ignores things like partisan advantage.

One representing a dozen math and science professors from some of Pennsylvania’s colleges said her group especially excluded that latter feature.

“They’re Pennsylvania voters,” Jessica Ring Aminson said. “They’re not here to engage in a power struggle. They’re not here to advocate for federal or state incumbent office holders. They just want a map that is fair to Pennsylvania voters.”

Here are what a few of the 14 maps look like:

All of the groups that appeared in court Thursday tried to show how their lines split up the state evenly and avoid cutting through municipalities. Those are among the four features the state Supreme Court used to judge maps a few years ago.

That’s important because the High Court will most likely have the final say, since those involved expect the Commonwealth Court’s decision to be appealed. If that happens, justices can either agree with the lower court’s choice, pick a different map, or have a new one drawn.

Lawyer Robert Wiygul, who advocated for Gov. Tom Wolf’s map idea, was among those who pointed out that those four features aren’t the only benchmark the state courts can use to decide on a map. He and others argued things like proportionality, or whether districts are drawn in ways that reflect a state’s voting habits, can also play a role.

“The court made clear that these criteria are only a floor,” Wiygul said. “Put differently, though many plans may satisfy these criteria, not all…provide a level political playing field.”

By law, Pennsylvania’s Congressional map is supposed to be crafted by lawmakers through the regular bill process. But that broke down because lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf were at odds over the map that was voted up along party lines.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who led the process that put together that plan in the Republican-controlled House, said he’s disappointed the courts are, once again, deciding what Congressional districts will look like.

“We went from a redistricting process that was open to every Pennsylvanian…[to] having a few select members of the judiciary decide which map will be used,” Grove said in a statement.

The state Senate broadcast a glimmer of hope when Republicans and Democrats said they were working on a compromise map that could have earned Wolf’s signature and avoided the courts.

“[But] there simply wasn’t the will to pass something that either side can live with,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said.

“We have an odd number of seats now and we could not come to a consensus where we could select what the split would be…and what would be the tiebreaker,” he added.

Whatever map emerges from the state court challenge will influence Congressional elections for the next ten years, including the one coming up in November. Judges have agreed to choose a map quickly to keep the primary on track for mid-May, though it’s possible things like the deadline for submitting candidate petitions could still move around.