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Pennsylvania Has 10 Days To Redraw Congressional Maps


The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to block a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision requiring the state legislature to redraw their congressional district map by this Friday. The state court ruled earlier this month that the Republican-drawn districts amounted to such extreme partisan gerrymandering that it violated the state constitution. Joining us to explain all of this is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Welcome, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi - or maybe explain it.


CHANG: Well, let's start with that. What exactly happened today?

TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Samuel Alito, who handles emergency appeals from Pennsylvania, rejected the state GOP legislature's effort to get this blocked. The fact that Alito, one of the court's most conservative members, rejected the request without even forwarding it to the full court is a sign of how little merit he believed the appeal had. And that's because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision was based on the state Constitution, not the federal Constitution.

CHANG: Well, Pennsylvania's current congressional map went into effect in 2011, right? So what is wrong with it according to the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court?

TOTENBERG: As the court saw it, and it was a 5-to-2 majority with the 5 being elected Democratic justices - the 5-to-2 majority said that the GOP-controlled state legislature used its power in a state that has 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans to draw lines so that since 2011, the Pennsylvania congressional delegation has been 13 to 5 in favor of the Republicans.

CHANG: So now they're supposed to come up with a new map by Friday. Is that even possible? I mean, I'm no gerrymandering expert, but this is incredibly complicated stuff.

TOTENBERG: Well, nobody says this is easy, but there are computers that do this very, very quickly. The state court ordered the legislature to redraw the lines to get rid of the partisan gerrymander and to do it by this Friday. The GOP majority in the state legislature didn't do that. And so now it's stuck with the Friday deadline. And under the process laid out by the state Supreme Court, after the state legislature draws the new lines, the governor, who's a Democrat, has until February 15 to decide whether to endorse it and submit it to the state court. So there is, shall we say, time for negotiations.

CHANG: Apparently - maybe possible room for more drama. Well, what if they don't meet the deadline?

TOTENBERG: Well, if not, then a majority of the state court - all elected and all Democrats - said they would draw new lines and themselves - do it themselves. The state court said it expects the new map to be set by February 19 so that it will be in play for the May 15 congressional primaries. Of course, last week, state Senate President Joseph Scarnati openly defied the state court, saying he wouldn't provide the court with the data it's requested if it has to draw the lines itself.

CHANG: Oh, boy.

TOTENBERG: And if he continues with that position, he could conceivably be held in contempt of court. Of course, he said that at the time that he said he was confident the Supreme Court would intervene, which it has now declined to do.

CHANG: OK. So what is the bottom line for voters in November?

TOTENBERG: Well, the Democrats in Pennsylvania will get new district lines that give them a chance to pick up seats. There is even that possibility in Wisconsin, in North Carolina and for Republicans in Maryland - all of which have partisan gerrymandering decisions by lower courts. But the Supreme Court hasn't ruled on that yet, the U.S. Supreme Court. And those are all federal cases, and the Supreme Court isn't expected to rule on it until June.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Thanks very much, Nina.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.