PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Pennsylvania state Senator Joe Scarnati need not bear the $30,000 cost of detouring a gerrymandering suit to federal court, the Third Circuit ruled Wednesday.
The League of Women Voters and a group of Democratic voters brought the suit two years ago, complaining about about a map that helped Republicans win 13 of 18 seats in the 2016 election, despite Democratic voters outnumbering Republicans in the state 5:4.
They ultimately prevailed — a 2018 ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court brought about a new map in time to contribute to the “Blue Wave” of midterm elections — but not before Scarnati made an unsuccessful bid to have the case heard in federal court.
Last April, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson held Scarnati personally responsible for improperly moving the case and slapped him with an order to pay $29,000 in legal fees.
The Third Circuit reversed that holding Wednesday, saying that Scarnati cannot be personally liable because he was a party to the case in his official capacity as president pro tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate.
“Because this is an ‘an official capacity action,’ plaintiffs are ‘entitled to look for relief, both on the merits and for fees, to the governmental entity’ only,” U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica wrote for a three-person panel. “Senator Scarnati in his personal capacity — a nonparty to this action — cannot be made to pay.”
The 20-page opinion out of Philadelphia otherwise upholds the ruling that there was no reasonable basis to remove the case to federal court, and that the attorneys should be reimbursed. That cost will instead fall to Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Matt Haverstick, an attorney for Scarnati with the firm Kleinbard, welcomed Wednesday’s reversal.
“We’re pleased that the court recognized the important distinction between public official litigants in their official versus personal capacities,” Haverstick said.
Scarnati’s chief of staff Drew Crompton took to Twitter to praise the decision.
“As I stated many months ago, the District Court’s decision was way out of bounds,” said Crompton. “Now it has been corrected.”
Attorneys for the voters at Arnold & Porter did not immediately respond to email seeking comment.
Scarnati is serving his fifth term for the 25th District of Pennsylvania.
At the federal level, Democrats now enjoy an even split in the once Republican-dominated Pennsylvania delegation. They could take the lead come May, however, when the state holds a special election for the 12th District following the surprise resignation of Republican Representative Tom Marino.