PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Voting districts based on census data that is over a decade old can govern upcoming Pennsylvania elections, a federal judge ruled, adding a small degree of clarity in a state primary process marred by delay and uncertainty.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said a 2011 redistricting plan establishing new districts based on fresh data from the 2010 census was unconstitutional.
That plan, proposed by the state's five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission, failed to adequately balance constitutional requirements that districts be compact, contiguous and roughly equal in population.
Of particular concern to the high court was a fourth requirement: that voting districts do not excessively fracture political subdivisions.
The state constitution says voting districts should divide counties, wards and municipalities only when absolutely necessary.
A group of 20 state senators who appealed the 2011 plan offered an alternative redistricting plan that, the group said, does a better job balancing these requirements, particularly when it comes to respecting the integrity of subdivisions.
In a 4-3 decision last month, the court called that plan "powerful evidence" that the commission could have done a better job balancing these factors, and remanded the plan to the commission for revision.
While the revisions are pending, the court directed Pennsylvania to govern its upcoming April 24 primary election with the 2001 redistricting plan, based on census data from 2000.
That directive prompted three federal lawsuits in late January and early February.
The plaintiffs - which include the majority leaders of the state Senate and House, the House speaker, and a Latino rights group - said it would be unconstitutional to use the old districts.
They said the 2001 plan fails to account for a population shift in the state from west to east, dilutes the strength of the Keystone State's now-expanded Latino voting bloc, and contains districts that vary excessively in population.
The majority leaders asked a federal judge to prevent the state secretary from conducting elections on 2001 voting lines.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick denied that request last week.
"Here, the primary election is eleven weeks away. In view of this immediacy, we are compelled to have the elections proceed under the 2001 plan," he found, noting that deadlines for various election filings are "fast approaching."
"In short, this is precisely a case 'where an impending election is imminent and a state's election machinery is already in progress,' such that a court may withhold from granting relief, even if the existing apportionment scheme is found to be invalid," the 24-page states, citing 4th Circuit precedent on a case involving the Maryland Legislature.
"To enjoin the 2012 election from proceeding under the 2001 plan would leave the Pennsylvania primary in a state of unacceptable uncertainty," Surrick wrote.
"Perhaps this is why the Supreme Court directed that the 2001 plan be used."
Even if, as the commission has indicated, a revised redistricting plan is proposed later this month, the requisite corrections and appeals process means that "the date of final approval of the revised 2011 plan will run up against the April 24th primary election date."
Further compounding the scheduling dilemma is the fact that 2012 is a presidential election year, and delays to the state's primary could prevent Pennsylvanians from being properly represented by delegates at the Republican and Democratic Conventions this summer.
That prospect is unsettling, and under the present circumstances, an injunction would "make no sense," Surrick found.
"Clearly, it would not be in the public interest."
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