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Justices won’t wade into Pennsylvania redistricting spat

GOP lawmakers objected to the creation of new seats for Pennsylvania state office in areas with growing minority populations.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Declining to tackle a redistricting dispute just two weeks ahead of midterm elections, the Supreme Court threw out a challenge over Pennsylvania voting districts that have been redrawn so that Democrats now have a shot at a majority in the state House.

Pennsylvania undergoes redistricting every 10 years, subsequent to each census, steered by commission made up of one appointed independent chair and the majority and minority leaders of the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Drawing criticism from Republican lawmakers, however, the new map is expected to give minority voters more electoral power because of additional seats in the state's southeastern region where population growth occurred in predominantly minority communities.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, upheld the map, prompting the Republican majority leader to petition the high court over the summer for a writ of certiorari.

In a brief signed by attorneys at Baker & Hostetler, Representative Kerry Benninghoff calls the map was “flagrantly” unconstitutional, saying the state’s 2021 Legislative Reapportionment Commission “predominantly used race in the construction of several districts.”

“The Commission ‘positioned’ Pennsylvania voters into districts because of their race, drawing majority-minority and influence districts in Philadelphia, Allentown, and elsewhere, even though it admitted its use of race went well beyond what the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required,” Benninghoff's petition argues.

Lawyers at Duane Morris defended the commission's work in an opposition brief

“When the Commission moved seats into southeastern Pennsylvania because of population growth in the region — with that population increase largely driven by growth in minority communities — the Commission’s plan inevitably increased opportunities for minority voters to influence the election of candidates of their choice,” the brief states. “Indeed, to account for population growth — much of which occurred in urban areas with significant minority populations — more districts, and thus more opportunities, had to be placed in these areas. All Commission members were aware of these demographic changes.”

In a statement Monday, the commission applauded the Supreme Court's handling of the case.

“We view this decision as a further validation of our committed efforts to ensure that the plan we adopted fully complied with the requirements of both state and federal law,” the commission said. “This action of our nation’s highest Court also can be seen as a validation of both the 4-to-1 bipartisan vote within the Commission itself to adopt the plan and with the unanimous decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholding it.”

Duane Morris attorney Robert Byer added to the statement Monday, calling the new map "the most fair Legislative Redistricting Plan adopted in Pennsylvania in many years pursuant to what has been the most transparent, open and accessible process ever followed by a Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission.”

Per its custom, the Supreme Court did not issue any statement Monday in turning down the case. Benninghoff's was one of dozens of unsuccessful petitions that appeared in the Monday order list. His lawyer's did not return a request for comment.

While Republicans have held the majority in the state House since 2010, Republican control of the the state Senate stretches back to 1994. The governor's mansion meanwhile has regularly flipped between Republican and Democratic control over the last few decades.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, now at the end of his second term, has endorsed the state's Attorney General Josh Shapiro as his replacement for Election Day on Nov. 8. Shapiro is leading in the polls over the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate Doug Mastriano. 

Pennsylvania's other open-seat election has also drawn national attention as it could determine control of the U.S. Senate, pitting Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman against Republican celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz.

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