With deadlines looming, congressional candidates await word from silent courts on new maps

HARRISBURG — With the Tuesday deadline for filing nominating petitions imminent, prospective candidates waiting for courts to take action on Pennsylvania’s radically reconfigured congressional map learned Friday that they will continue to wait.

By day’s end Friday, neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the U.S. District Court here had decided whether to grant requests from Republican lawmakers who want them to overturn the new congressional map put in place by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled that lines drawn in 2011 represented an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander favoring Republicans.

Members of both parties and outside experts appeared to be at a loss to explain the courts’ inaction. The delay, at least on the U.S. Supreme Court side, is “quite unusual,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine..

Candidates have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to file paperwork with at least 1,000 signatures supporting their runs for office. The paperwork must be precise and include the specific districts the candidates are seeking to represent.

As of Friday evening, 12 candidates had filed petitions — nine Republicans and three Democrats — and a flurry of other filings is expected early next week.

Republicans say the lack of a decision this close to the deadline leaves candidates in limbo and exacerbates an already chaotic situation.

“There’s a lot of confusion among both candidates and voters,” said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect GOP members to the House. “I think for the most part, most of them are getting signatures for the new districts because, until we have a decision … that’s just the assumption they have to operate under.”

A last-minute switch could have major implications for the election. Some Republicans fear that a change could make them vulnerable to petition challenges that could knock them out of the election. A change also could cause some candidates to drop out of the race and — if deadlines are extended — prompt others to enter it.

One Democrat, State Rep. Greg Vitali of Delaware County, also expressed concern about the lack of clarity on the map. He flipped back and forth on whether to run for Congress or his state seat before deciding to run for both, a move that angered some other potential candidates. “Even to this day, there is still not certainty as to what those lines will be,” he said earlier this week.

Members of both parties and outside experts seem to be looking anywhere they can for hints about what the courts might do.

“The common wisdom seems to be that somebody is writing a dissent from a court order and, given the timing, the more time that passes, the less likely it is that the court grants the stay, and that’s because everybody’s reliance on the lower court order is increasing,” Hasen said.

But, he added, “you can never say never.”

Privately, some Democrats wonder if Republicans have resigned themselves to the new map’s existence — although publicly many GOP members still hold out hope it will be overturned.

State Rep. Rick Saccone, a Republican who just lost a special election in Western Pennsylvania, announced this week that he will run in the new 14th District south of Pittsburgh. And Republican Congressman Scott Perry, one of several who has joined a legal challenge of the new map, also filed paperwork to run in one of the new districts.

“There’s been no confusion,” said Adam Bonin, an attorney representing several Democratic candidates. “All understand what their boundaries are and what the district numbers are, and everyone is looking forward to filing their petitions on Monday and Tuesday.”

Republicans have said repeatedly throughout the legal wrangling that they worry the new map will cause chaos during an important election cycle. Their opponents frequently argue that voters have nearly two months to familiarize themselves with candidates and district boundaries before the race.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January tossed out the previous congressional map on the ground that it had been drawn to favor Republicans, violating the state constitution. It gave lawmakers and the governor’s office deadlines for submitting and reviewing a new map. When those deadlines passed without agreement on a map, the Supreme Court, with assistance from an outside expert, imposed a new one.

The previous map led to Republican victories in the same 13 out of 18 seats in all of the years when it was in place, not including Tuesday’s special election in western Pennsylvania.

Experts have said they expect the map imposed by the state Supreme Court still would give Republicans a slight edge but would create more districts that favor Democrats and more districts that are competitive for both major parties.

Republican lawmakers have filed two legal challenges to the map, both arguing that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped its bounds and violated the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives state legislatures power over elections.