‘The first of many’: Democratic redistricting group files preemptive lawsuit in Pa. court

By: - April 27, 2021 12:40 pm

(*This story was updated at 5:13 p.m. on Tuesday, 4/27/21 to include comment from House Republicans)

A Democratic activist group helmed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has struck an early blow in what’s expected to be a brutal, nationwide legal battle over congressional redistricting, filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania and two other states asking the judiciary to be ready to step in if mapmakers deadlock.

The lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court on Monday, came just hours after the widely anticipated release of U.S. Census data that will point the way as mapmakers in all 50 states engage in a decennial redraw of congressional and legislative boundaries.

Confirming the suspicions of political strategists and cartographers, Pennsylvania will lose one congressional seat, shrinking from 18 seats to 17 seats, and losing an electoral vote in the process.

In a press call on Tuesday morning, Holder, joined by prominent elections attorney Marc Elias, said his group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was moving early to head-off what they expect will be a coordinated effort by Republicans push through gerrymandered maps that will diminish voters’ voices, particularly those of Black and Brown voters.

The lawsuits were filed by the National Redistricting Action Fund, a nonprofit allied with Holder’s group, according to The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. The court filing argues that Pennsylvania’s current congressional map immediately became unconstitutional with the release of the new data.

“We’re facing a Republican Party that is willing to bend or break the rules of democracy simply to hold onto power,” Holder told journalists.

In addition to Pennsylvania, where power is split between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Holder’s group also filed so-called “impasse litigation,” in Louisiana and Minnesota. In the case of the former, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards faces a majority-GOP General Assembly; in the case of the latter, Democrats (formally known as the Democratic Farmer Labor Party) control the Governor’s Office and state House, while Republicans have a majority in the state Senate.

In the Keystone State, the Legislature draws the state’s Congressional map. Legislative redistricting is controlled by a four-member commission, made up of floor leaders from the state House and Senate, with an impartial fifth member serving as chairperson.

‘Fairness means a lot to me’: Pa. residents make their pitch to chair Legislative redistricting panel

Elias said the lawsuits would be the first of many that will be filed as the fight over congressional maps spools out along an accelerated schedule this year. He tied the coming fight over redistricting to an ongoing one over voting rights that has seen the GOP file hundreds of bills aimed at curtailing access to the polls.

“The connection between voting rights and gerrymandering are joined at the hip,” Elias said. “The efforts you are seeing in legislature after legislature – in the voting rights arena is inextricably linked to the efforts you see Republicans undertaking in the next round of redistricting. It is an effort to undo majoritarian rule, because Republicans no longer have have the majority … The fight against majority rule is central to what Republicans are doing on the voting rights front.”

The litigation will be a familiar sight to Pennsylvania voters. More than two years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, finding the state’s former Congressional map unconstitutional, stepped in and imposed its own maps ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

State Republicans have seethed ever since over what they see as unreasonable overreach by a court with a progressive majority. Democrats went on to eliminate the GOP’s congressional majority, and now have a 9-9 split.

*In an email, Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the House GOP was “committed to following a fair, open, and legal redistricting and reapportionment process.

While the development of a new Congressional map is a legislative process, the premature nature of this lawsuit begs real questions about the motivation of those involved to take the process away from the people of the Commonwealth working through the General Assembly and the governor to reach a legislative solution,” Gottesman said.

Nationally, Republicans have dismissed the suits as little more than publicity stunts.

“They’re intentionally doing this just to raise a flag,” Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, told The Hill. “They’re expensive press releases.” 

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.