By Melissa Milewski
A federal court ruled Monday that the
Republican-backed plan adopted by the state Legislature for
remapping the state into 19 congressional districts is
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"
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Staff Writers Robert Armengol
and M. Bradford Grabowski and The Associated Press contributed to