Pa. judge suggests Supreme Court adopt GOP lawmakers’ congressional map

The map is ‘functionally tantamount to the voice and will of the People,’ Commonwealth Court Patricia McCullough wrote

By: - February 7, 2022 1:57 pm

*This story was updated at 2:20 p.m. on Monday 2/7/22 with comment from Amanda Holt and additional context on Judge Patricia McCullough and at 3:10 p.m. with a statement from legislative Republicans.

The state judge originally charged with overseeing Pennsylvania’s congressional redistricting case has advised the state Supreme Court to pick the Republican Legislature’s proposed map.

In a 228-page report submitted to the high court Monday, Commonwealth Court judge Patricia McCullough picked the map out of 13 submissions provided to the court by a mix of citizens groups and elected officials.

After hearing two days of arguments on the maps two weeks ago, McCullough wrote that “neither Governor [Tom] Wolf nor any other party herein has advanced any cognizable legal objection to the constitutionality” of Legislative Republicans’ proposed map.

McCullough, who was elected to the bench as a Republican and issued a quickly overturned order blocking the certification of the 2020 election, added that the map’s legislative origins mean it is “functionally tantamount to the voice and will of the People.”

“As a matter of American political theory since its founding, is a device of monumental import and should be honored and respected by all means necessary,” she added.

The proposal passed along near-party lines last month before Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed it. Republican backers have said the proposal is a giant leap forward in citizen input; Redistricting advocates and Democrats have countered that the process was still opaque and its end result partisan.

The final decision still falls to the state Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 liberal majority. Arguments on the case are slated for Friday, Feb. 18.

Pennsylvania’s redistricting debate has been particularly contentious this year. The state currently has an even, 9-9 split of its congressional delegation on maps drawn by the state Supreme Court in 2018. And the state is slated to lose a congressional district — going from 18 seats to 17 seats — due to the commonwealth’s slow population growth.

Republicans promised a transparent process, held a dozen hearings across the state, and accepted citizen map submissions. In a statement, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, argued the map was “the only logical choice since it is the only map that was developed in a historically open and transparent process.”

But the map portal was hard to use, advocates argued, and had a hidden requirement of perfectly equal district populations that confounded would-be citizen mappers.

After receiving just a handful of maps, House State Government Committee Chairperson Seth Grove, R-York, picked one, drawn by longtime redistricting advocate Amanda Holt, without Democratic input. Grove’s panel has oversight of election issues.

Holt, a former Republican Lehigh County commissioner, has even downplayed her submission, previously arguing that prioritizing equal-population districts “creates some oddities in the district that are not necessary and do not need to exist.”

Listening to GOP lawmakers, Pa. House committee doesn’t vote on citizen-drawn map

Grove then offered changes in response to GOP concerns over splits to rural counties. That was the version that landed on Wolf’s desk.

Wolf, meanwhile, released standards calling for a compact map, a proportional split of the state’s 17-member congressional delegation between Democrats and Republicans, and a transparent process. The Legislature’s map, Wolf argued, did not match his standards. 

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave an earlier version of the map a B-grade, arguing it created a large number of competitive districts, but gave Republicans an overall advantage.

An analysis by Fair Districts PA, a statewide redistricting advocacy group, reached a similar conclusion. They found that Holt’s map was among the least compact districts, and the most biased towards Republicans.

One benefit of her proposal was it had among the fewest divisions, and did not split any voting precincts. But Grove’s subsequent changes split nine precincts.

All together, this left advocates scratching their head at what exactly Grove and Republicans prioritized when picking a map.

The House map “does not reflect the criteria we asked for, the community input we provided, or our hopes for a genuinely transparent, citizen-led process,” Fair Districts PA executive director Carol Kuniholm wrote in a letter last week.

For her part, Holt has since drawn newer versions of the map.

She told the Capital-Star on Monday that she viewed the map as the General Assembly’s map “… was based on work I had done,” and that her original proposal was the best she could have done in the limited amount of time between the release of final Census data and the deadline for citizen map submissions.

With more time, Holt added, she could have crafted a new map that more people might view as a better outcome.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect map, but it would have been better to have bipartisan support,” Holt said. Such a commitment could have let Wolf and the governor agree on a map, “instead of being in a position now where the courts are picking what our district lines look like.”

On a related issue, McCullough suggested that the timeline for congressional candidates to collect signatures and qualify for the May ballot run from March 1 until March 15. The petition period would normally run from Feb. 15 to March 8 this year.

She also suggested that the state’s primary election date — May 17 — remain unchanged.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.