About that court ruling that could change the face of Pennsylvania politics | John Baer

Is the political face of Pennsylvania about to change? Or not.

The thing about change? Especially in places not used to it? If it comes, it comes quickly. Like a lightning bolt.

Like the state Supreme Court ruling this week that Pennsylvania’s congressional districts are overly partisan, unconstitutional, and need to be redrawn right now.

Boom. Zap. Just like that. Staid, old Pa. politics might never be the same.

New congressional district maps replacing Republican-drawn 2011 maps that are ranked among America’s most gerrymandered would mean actual political reform.


And likely a big win for Democrats. Ever since the 2011 maps, they’ve held just five of the state’s 18 U.S. House seats. If the ruling stands, and Dems don’t do what they’re prone to do — namely, screw up opportunities — they stand to gain.

Less partisan maps could mean Democrats grab, by some estimates, up to four, even five new seats — even without a 2018 Democrat wave.

State Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen says the ruling makes things much easier: “All the seats in the southeast and in the Lehigh Valley now become more competitive.”

(Speaking of the southeast, and just as an aside, could GOP Rep. Pat Meehan have a worse week? First that Times story. Now this decision. As he sits in a district offered nationally as an example of excessive gerrymandering.)

But why do we have this ruling? Because, of course, of politics.

Because back in 2015, three Democrats (Philly’s Kevin Dougherty, Pittsburgh’s David Wecht, Pittsburgh’s Christine Donohue), mostly with money from labor and lawyers, way outspent GOP opponents in the nation’s costliest Supreme Court race and won three seats on the state’s high court, flipping it from R to D.

Just like that. And when that now-Democratic court voted to throw out the Republican maps, it voted along party lines.

Within an hour of the ruling, a national Democratic campaign consultant called solely to say this: “Elections have consequences.”

They do, indeed.

And some could reach beyond the state. For if there’s a Democratic wave in this year’s midterm elections, Pennsylvania becomes critical to any hope Democrats may have of capturing the U.S. House.

Also, an ancillary issue that might get steam from all this? Merit selection of statewide judges.

In Pennsylvania, one of only seven states electing judges at all levels, the issue of a merit system has hung around for years as a good-government initiative, sometimes inertly, sometimes charged up by one judicial scandal or another.

Well, political gain is a great motivator.

Speaking with GOP state chief Val DiGiorgio, I suggest Republicans might now have new fire for pushing judicial merit appointments.

He smiled and flashed a thumb up.

I shared this with Groen. Groen groaned: “Oh, yeah, now they’ll become good-government people.”

Just think. The possibility of two reforms — fairer districts and merit selection – coming at once. Too much to hope for? Yeah, probably.

It’s just as likely, this being Pennsylvania, we’ll see chaos and ongoing litigation, first about this week’s ruling. Republicans promise an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court even though plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that their case was brought exclusively under the state constitution, so such an appeal has no standing.

It’s just, I think, we’ve seen over time, especially when it comes to political cases, that any court can pretty much do anything it wants.

Then, what about the timing of getting and using new districts by the May 15 primaries? Or getting candidate nominating petitions signed and filed? Our court says that if new districts aren’t approved by the legislature and the governor by Feb. 15, the court itself takes over.

And then, I imagine, we head down the path of separation of powers, activist judges, authority granted the legislature under the state constitution, etc., etc.

All of which is to say that change, even if it comes quickly, never comes easy. So, sit tight. Stay tuned. Unless you’re Pat Meehan.