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The Intelligencer

Court overturns redistricting
By Melissa Milewski
April 9, 2002

A federal court ruled Monday that the Republican-backed plan adopted by the state Legislature for remapping the state into 19 congressional districts is unconstitutional.

In a 2-1 vote, the three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled that the redistricting plan's difference of 19 persons between the populations of the largest and the smallest of the new congressional districts violated the "one man, one vote" principle.

However, in a dissent, U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. said the 19-person deviation was justified by a legitimate objective of avoiding splitting voter precincts among districts.

The court stopped short of revising the state's redistricting plan itself, instead setting a three-week deadline for the Legislature to submit another plan. That deadline is April 29, less than a month before the May 21 primary.

The plan had been expected to give Republicans a 14-5 edge in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation, compared to the 11-10 majority the party now holds.

Republicans called the distinction made by the court "unrealistically fine" in a state with a population of 12.3 million people and said they would probably appeal the ruling or seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue of deviation was the sole remaining challenge left for Democrats, who filed suit against the plan.

The judges said the population deviations could have been avoided. The federal court also noted that the person who created the map testified that the Republican leadership advised him to stop manipulating the numbers of people in each district once he reached a difference of 19.

Frank Custer, spokesman for Congressman Joe Hoeffel, a Democrat who represents the 13th District, which includes most of Montgomery County, said the decision was a vindication of the Democrats' legal argument. Custer said Hoeffel could not be reached for comment.

"Now, it's up to the Legislature to adopt a real map," Custer said. "One that doesn't pit incumbents against each other."

The redistricting plan had Hoeffel facing off against longtime Philadelphia Congressman Robert Borski, a Democrat, in the May 21 primary. Borski announced in March that he would retire after his term rather than run against Hoeffel. He has served in the position since 1983.

Borski, who is out of the country, issued a statement about the decision.

"The General Assembly should now work with the Democrats in a fair, bipartisan manner to produce a map that is constitutional and reflects the interests of the citizens of the commonwealth," the statement said. "It is time to put an end to gerrymandering and enact a new map that reflects the values of Pennsylvanians and preserves the prestige of our delegation in Congress."

Republican Congressman Jim Greenwood, who represents the 8th District, which includes Bucks County and a small part of Eastern Montgomery County, called the court's decision "odd." He said it was "surprising that the court decided 19 to be too significant a number."

Legislators, said Greenwood, "are all just hopeful that the minuscule issue can be resolved quickly with a little tweaking of the map."

The redistricting plan also pitted two other Democratic incumbents and one Republican incumbent and one Democratic incumbent running against each other in the primary. However, no Republican incumbents would have faced off against each other under the new map.

The decision also injects an element of uncertainty into the primary. Republicans said one scenario they were considering would call for postponement of all or part of the primary until September while the matter is appealed.

At least one other state, North Carolina, has called off its May primary elections after a court ruled that newly drawn legislative districts were unconstitutional.

Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill, a Republican who represents

Lebanon County, was surprised by the ruling.

"Nineteen (persons) is 0.00003 percent deviation (between the congressional districts' population)," Brightbill said. "We're not talking about a tenth of a percent. We're not talking about a hundredth of a percent. We're not talking about a thousandth of a percent. We're talking about numbers I don't normally deal with in my everyday life."

But Democrats were "delighted" with the ruling.

"The court has accepted the basic premise that there was no valid reason for the plan to be drawn the way it was," said Robert Hoffman, a lawyer for the Democrats, who filed the complaint in the case.

"No matter how sanitized and legalistic the language of the federal court may be, the underlying reality is that any third-grader with five minutes to spare could look at that Republican reapportionment map and know that somebody was up to no good," said H. William DeWeese, the House Democratic leader.

The federal court also stated that the redistricting plan splits voting precincts, which creates additional costs and work for county election officials in acquiring voting machines, customizing ballots and training officials.

"The logical inconsistency is so deep that is causes us to pause and consider the sincerity of such proffer. If defendants truly wanted to avoid splitting precincts, they would have done so by enacting a zero deviation map that did not split any precincts," according to the opinion.

The judges also noted that the new map splits "the most counties (twenty-five) and municipalities (fifty-nine cities, townships, or boroughs).

"Although Pennsylvania's loss of two congressional seats requires the pairing of only two sets of incumbents in the 2002 elections, Act 1 (the new map) pits six incumbents against each other: two pairs of Democrats, and one Republican against one Democrat (the latter in a district that heavily favors Republican candidates)," the opinion stated. "At the same time Act 1 pits more incumbents than necessary against one another, it also creates a new district, District 6, in which no incumbent resides."

Melissa Brown, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the 13th District, said the decision does not affect her.

"This doesn't change my plan of action at all," Brown said. "Where the line goes doesn't make a difference. I'll be working with the same people. I'm still excited."

Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, said redistricting lawsuits like Pennsylvania's "underscore the flaws in our current election system."

His nonprofit think tank claims more than 90 percent of congressional elections are noncompetitive. Nationally, the major parties tend to focus their attention on only a handful of key elections each cycle.

"We wonder why voter turnout is so low in this country," Olson said. "You really don't have to look much further beyond these gerrymandered districts, where one party or the other controls the election."

Olson said the United States is one of the few democracies of the world in which the "winner-take-all" principle dominates elections. In other countries, he said, representation is tied directly to the percentage of votes each party garners.

"Elections are supposed to be about the will of the people," Olson said. "That has essentially ceased to be the case."

The case was considered by Yohn, of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia; and Judges Richard L. Nygaard of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Sylvia H. Rambo of U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

Staff Writers Robert Armengol and M. Bradford Grabowski and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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