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From the archives 2021

Pa. Supreme Court will pick chair of powerful state redistricting panel

by Marie Albiges of Spotlight PA |

A five-member commission is tasked with drawing new state House and Senate maps every 10 years.
Madhuri Shukla / For Spotlight PA

This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It’s made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access.

Update, May 3: The court has appointed a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor to the role.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will pick the chair of a powerful redistricting panel after the General Assembly’s top leaders deadlocked on who should cast the likely tie-breaking vote on new legislative maps.

The selection of the chair has fallen to the court in almost every decade since the Legislative Reapportionment Commission was first convened in 1971 to draw the state’s House and Senate maps. The four caucus leaders who serve on the panel interviewed more than 30 people for the position, but said in a letter Friday they were “unable to make a decision.”

“While we were unable to find consensus on one individual to serve as chair, we were thoroughly impressed by the field of applicants who came forth to testify,” the lawmakers — Republicans Sen. Kim Ward and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, and Democrats Sen. Jay Costa and Rep. Joanna McClinton — wrote in a letter to Chief Justice Max Baer.

The state Supreme Court has until May 30 to make its choice, and the person it picks could have major implications for what the state House and Senate maps look like for the next decade.

The current maps, drawn by Republican leaders and approved by four of the panel’s five members in 2012, skew toward the GOP, according to multiple mathematical tests. The state Supreme Court, which was majority Republican at the time, rejected the commission’s first maps for splitting too many municipalities in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The chair typically serves as mediator and referee between the four legislators, who historically have submitted maps that benefit their own party. The chair also serves as the tie-breaker vote in the event of an impasse.

The court isn’t limited to picking someone from the list of people who applied and were interviewed earlier this week. Past chairs have included Republican Stephen McEwen, a retired Superior Court judge from Delaware County; former U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich; and James Freedman, a former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The deadlock over the chairperson comes after two days of public interviews with lawyers, IT professionals, engineers, educators, and former judges who threw their names in the ring for the job.

Picking someone from the public — a “regular person,” as one candidate put it — to lead the commission would have been a step toward fixing democracy and restoring trust in the election process, many applicants said.

“It’s overwhelming being a citizen of the country these days, seeing the mess that we’re in,” Eric Randall, an engineer from Pittsburgh, said during his five-minute interview. “To me, it’s a chance to say, ‘I didn’t just hunker down at home or complain about the political system but I had a chance to do something about it.’ ”

It was only the second time in the commission’s history that the public was invited to apply, and more than 60 people submitted their names for consideration, according to the panel.

The applicants called themselves apolitical, neutral, and nonpartisan, with no preconceptions about what the districts should look like. They said they would represent all Pennsylvania voices and serve as the bridge between citizens and the legislators.

Some talked about how good they’d be at running meetings and keeping members on track to meet the tight deadlines; others touted their ability to successfully mediate and settle disputes.

Others were critical of the legislators themselves and the ones who came before them.

“The goal should not be to keep one legislator in one district for one lifetime,” said Joseph Venti, a Philadelphia lawyer. “The goal is to serve the people, to give them the best representation we can.”

The commissioners’ letter to the state Supreme Court included a list of criteria they want the justices to consider when selecting the chair. The lawmakers said the court should pick someone who is a “fair and neutral arbiter of this process, essentially a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes.”

“Simply put, a chair should possess the qualifications that would enable them to resolve disagreements in a fair and transparent manner,” they wrote.

And they want someone who isn’t in the political game, hasn’t run for office recently, and hasn’t lately worked as a lobbyist.

“This will ensure the chair of the commission will come into this process dissociated from partisan politics,” the commissioners wrote.

Advocates for reforming how the lines are drawn have thrown their support behind two bills they said would hold lawmakers accountable and provide more transparency. The first, a bill by state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), requires similar guardrails to what the commissioners are asking justices to consider.

The second, known as the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act, would require the commission to hold public hearings, allow anyone to submit their own redistricting plan, and require the panel’s members to explain their rationale for how they draw the maps. It also outlines measurable map-drawing criteria and incorporates Argall’s chair qualifications.

The once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s legislative maps to reflect changes in population is already facing problems. The U.S. Census Bureau can’t deliver the necessary data for the new districts until at least mid-August. That leaves the commission only a few months to win the state Supreme Court’s approval on the maps before the March 2022 candidate primary filing deadline.

Pennsylvania’s new congressional map, meanwhile, will be drawn by Republican lawmakers as part of legislation that must go to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf for approval. Should they fail to reach an agreement, the high court will likely be asked to step in.

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