Voting Rights and Democracy

OP-ED: Pa. Republicans are assaulting the rule of law in gerrymander fight

Republicans in control of the PA legislature gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts, seeking to entrench their party in power.

Republicans in control of the Pennsylvania Legislature gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts, seeking to entrench their party in power.

Now that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional, we’re seeing an unprecedented assault on the rule of law.

In our democratic system of government, voters are supposed to choose their elected representatives, not the other way around.

Partisan gerrymandering is at war with these principles, as courts around the country have been recognizing.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two landmark cases–one from Wisconsin and one from Maryland–that test whether partisan gerrymandering can be squared with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees.

Even measured against the most extreme maps, Pennsylvania’s partisan gerrymander is an outlier.

The map is so biased that it gave Republican candidates a lock on 13 of 18 congressional seats, even in years that Democratic candidates won the statewide vote. Rather than give the people of Pennsylvania the right to select congressional representatives–as the U.S. Constitution commands–the legislature sought to entrench Republicans in power.

The resulting lines are a crazy quilt. Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, which is so badly distorted that it looks like Goofy kicking Donald Duck, has so many twists and turns that it divides five counties and twenty-six municipalities.

These lines serve only one purpose: to dilute the votes of Democratic voters. For good reason, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that these district lines could not be squared with the guarantees of individual rights contained in the Pennsylvania Constitution.

In our system of government, courts serve as a check on abuse of power by the government, ensuring respect for constitutional guarantees that protect all persons, regardless of their beliefs.

Now, in the wake of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling, conservative legislators are waging war on the judicial branch, seeking to undermine its legitimacy.

Immediately following the ruling, on January 22, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre,”express[ed] outrage” at the Supreme Court, calling its ruling a “partisan action showing a distinct lack of respect for the Constitution.”

Scarnati went even further. In a contemptible act, he refused to turn over districting data, as ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, accusing the court of usurping the legislature’s authority.

On Jan. 25, Scarnati, joined by state House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling, ignoring that the U.S. Supreme Court has historically deferred to state courts in cases regarding state constitutional matters.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Samuel Alito, one of the high court’s most conservative members, rejected the request without even referring it to the full Court.

On Feb. 4, in a desperate attempt to force the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, Republican leaders accused two members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of “extreme bias” against the legislature, insisting that they should have never participated in the case.

This, too, went nowhere.

On Feb. 5, state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Indiana, called for the impeachment of the five Democratic justices show voted to strike down the state’s partisan gerrymander. He claimed that the entire five-justice majority committed “misbehavior in office” so extreme that they should be removed from office.

These actions represent a shameful assault on the rule of law, which is the bedrock of our constitutional system.

We celebrate our judicial system for the role it plays in protecting our fundamental liberties and preventing the government from subordinating disfavored groups of persons.

The string of lawless actions by these Pennsylvania Republican legislators is a telling reminder of why courts matter, and why courts must act to check abuse of power, particularly when our democracy is at stake.

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