In a case that could affect the 2018 elections, a lawyer for the group challenging Pennsylvania’s congressional boundaries told a panel of federal judges Monday he would seek to show that they were drawn unfairly to favor Republicans through the use of sophisticated software and detailed datasets.
Lawyers for Republican state lawmakers countered that statewide results shed no light on the individual districts, since voters elect members of Congress in their own individual districts and not statewide.
“We’re in a new technical world here,” said Thomas H. Geoghegan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, during opening statements at what is an expedited proceeding.
Going through the results of several elections, Geoghegan showed that voters across the state have been split roughly in half between Democrats and Republicans. Pennsylvanians have voted in favor of both former President Barack Obama and President Trump; former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, and Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat.
But since since the 2011 map went into effect, Geoghegan noted, Republicans have consistently won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts.
Jason B. Torchinsky, a lawyer for House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, argued in his opening statement that “political considerations are part and parcel of the redistricting process.”
The voters bringing the suit, led by Louis Agre, the 21st Democratic Ward leader who represents most of Roxborough and Manayunk, are invoking the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which they say gives states the power to run elections and make voting-related decisions, but not to insert partisanship when they do so.
So where other suits, including a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, seek to argue that a map goes too far as a gerrymander, this one seeks to say that any degree of gerrymandering is unlawful.
“It’s very different … because it doesn’t sort of require extreme effects, any effect is enough. And that’s a very different approach,” said Michael Li, a gerrymandering expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “You don’t have to get into the question of how much is too much.”
Monday morning, the panel of judges — U.S. Circuit Judges D. Brooks Smith and Patty Schwartz and District Judge Michael M. Baylson — handled a series of procedural issues, including over which witnesses would be permitted to testify. In several of those issues, lawyers for either side cast some blame on the speed of the trial schedule for creating problems.
The suit, Agre v. Wolf was filed Oct. 2.
“We have endeavored to expedite this matter, given its public importance,” Baylson said. Later, when one lawyer again pointed to the speed of the trial, Baylson said, “We know the difficulties that has entailed, because we have experienced them ourselves.”
At points, haste evidently has created road-bumps, as when photocopying errors caused confusion among the lawyers and judges.
The judges heard from only one witness before lunch: Daniel McGlone, an analyst at Philadelphia-based mapping and geographic data analysis firm Azavea. McGlone described the results of his analyses of the congressional map and election results, going through districts to show ways that they appeared to favor Republicans.
If the challenge is successful, it could force a redrawing of Pennsylvania’s map before next year’s midterm elections. In that case, a lawyer for Gov. Wolf and other state officials said, the state would work to accommodate that process, including adjusting primary dates and schedules.
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