As GOP lawmakers disagree, Pa. gerrymandering suit returns to state court

The highly contorted congressional districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania have been called some of the most gerrymandered in the country.

Pennsylvania’s top two state Republican lawmakers evidently weren’t on the same page.

Days after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court fast-tracked a state lawsuit challenging the congressional map as an unconstitutional gerrymander designed to favor Republicans, ordering Commonwealth Court to decide it by the end of the year, State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati moved the case to federal court.

He argued that since a special election has been scheduled to fill the Pittsburgh-area seat left vacant by former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a state court decision would interfere with a federal election.

But on Thursday, just two days later, Scarnati’s attorneys backtracked, asking to return the case to state court less than an hour before a scheduled hearing.

What happened? House Speaker Mike Turzai, a co-defendant in the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania lawsuit, disagreed with Scarnati’s action, according to Scarnati’s lawyers. Thursday afternoon, they said, they learned from Turzai’s attorneys that he now disagrees with moving the case to federal court.

Before Tuesday, Scarnati “understood” from Turzai’s counsel that the House speaker “consented” to the move, Scarnati’s lawyers wrote in their filing Thursday. “This afternoon, we have been advised from counsel that defendant Turzai does not now consent.”

Scarnati attorney Matthew H. Haverstick apologized in court Thursday to Judge Michael M. Baylson and to the plaintiff’s lawyers, some of whom had traveled from Washington, D.C. for the hearing. “The motion was filed in good faith,” Haverstick said, adding, “We were apprised of what we consider a change in position from Speaker Turzai.”

Turzai took exception to that framing. House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said Thursday that Turzai had at no point changed his mind. The speaker, Miskin said, “did not consent nor ever consented to the action filed.”

Late Thursday, attorney Brian S. Paszamant said Turzai’s legal team had directly told Scarnati’s that the House speaker had consented. Shortly before Thursday’s hearing, Paszamant said, Turzai’s lawyers emailed Scarnati’s lawyers and said Turzai did not consent.

In the brief hearing in the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, Judge Michael M. Baylson agreed to send the case back to the state Supreme Court.

R. Stanton Jones, a Washington, D.C., lawyer on the legal team representing the Democratic voters bringing the lawsuit, said he believed the move to federal court “was designed solely for delaying” the state lawsuit.

“They want to try to block the Dec. 11 trial,” he told reporters after the hearing.

Jones and the other lawyers, including the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, are hoping the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will strike down the current congressional map before the 2018 midterm elections. Jones said he believed the ultimate goal of Scarnati’s lawyers “is to prevent, by any means necessary, a new map being put in place” before the elections.

This week’s actions did affect the case for a day: A hearing in the case originally scheduled for Thursday at the state level was canceled. But with the case returned to the state court level, the hearing was quickly rescheduled for Friday.

The trial remains scheduled to begin Dec. 11.