(Reuters) – Pennsylvania's top court on Monday threw out the state's congressional map, ruling that Republican legislators unlawfully sought partisan advantage, and gave them three weeks to rework it in a decision that could boost Democratic chances of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.
In a 5-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the electoral map violated the state Constitution by manipulating the district boundaries to minimize the voting power of Democratic voters, a practice called partisan gerrymandering.
Democrats, who hold only five of the state’s 18 congressional districts despite Pennsylvania being a closely divided electoral swing state, are hoping to regain control of the House in the November mid-term elections.
The court’s five Democratic members said the congressional map "clearly, plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and, on that sole basis, we hereby strike it as unconstitutional." Both Republican justices dissented.
Democrats need to flip two dozen seats nationwide to win control of the House from Republicans. With a new Pennsylvania map, Democrats would likely have a much better opportunity to pick up several House seats.
Experts have long held up Pennsylvania as one of the most extreme examples of partisan gerrymandering, pointing to bizarrely shaped districts that have earned nicknames like "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck." The Republican-controlled legislature created the current map in 2011, after the 2010 U.S. census.
The court’s two-page order said the legislature has until Feb. 9 to submit a new electoral map to Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who would have until Feb. 15 to sign off. If either of those deadlines passes without action, the court said it would adopt its own map, based on evidence presented during a one-week trial in December.
The state Senate president, Joe Scarnati, and majority leader, Jake Corman, both Republicans, called the court’s deadline for a new map "impossible" and said they would request a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It is clear that with this ruling the court is attempting to bypass the Constitution and the legislative process and legislate themselves, directly from the bench," the two lawmakers said in a statement.
The legal challenge to the Pennsylvania map, filed by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, relied on the state Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution, and lawyers for the plaintiffs said the U.S. Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the case.
"It’s well established that the United States Supreme Court does not review decisions of state force that exclusively construe state law," attorney Stanton Jones said.
The U.S. Supreme Court is already weighing whether to set a legal standard for gerrymandering in two cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland. The court is expected to rule by the end of June in both cases.
The plaintiffs had argued the map violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantees of free expression and equal protection. The court’s order did not specify how the map runs afoul of the law but said a full opinion will be released in the future.
Mimi McKenzie, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, told reporters, "We are thrilled that one of the worst gerrymanders in American history has been struck down."
One Democratic justice, Max Baer, agreed with the court majority that the map is illegal but said he would have delayed a new map until the 2020 election cycle to avoid "chaos."
Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Will Dunham