AFT Pennsylvania filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the League of Women Voters and Democratic plaintiffs from each of the state's 18 Congressional Districts, including a Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers' member. AFTPA argued that the gerrymandered districts, drawn by the 2011 Republican majority in the legislature, violated the state constitution by redrawing boundaries to protect GOP Congressional seats and marginalize Democratic votes. The gerrymandered maps resulted in Republicans winning 13 of 18 seats since 2012, in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 5 to 4.In a split 4-3 decision, the court said that districts must have compact and contiguous territory, as nearly equal in population as possible and not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward except where necessary to ensure equality of population.
The General Assembly may submit a redistricting plan to the governor no later than Feb. 9, and Governor Wolf has until Feb. 15 to submit it to the court. If the General Assembly or governor do not submit a plan by the deadlines, the court will adopt a plan. The court also ruled that the districting plan will be available by Feb. 19 so May 15 primary elections take place under the newly drawn districts.
"The court's decision is a huge victory because it protects voters from being marginalized by a dominant political party. AFTPA is proud to have played a role in protecting the rights of thousands of Pennsylvania voters," AFTPA President Ted Kirsch said following the decision on Monday.
After AFT Pennsylvania convention delegates passed a resolution directing the union to fight gerrymandering of Pennsylvania’s voting districts last summer, the union filed an Amici Curiae (friend of the court) brief urging the state Supreme Court to end partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. (Read the AFTPA Resolution here.)
Pennsylvania is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in the country. Although registered Democrats have an edge over Republican voters, Democrats have won only five of 18 Congressional seats since 2012. A lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters on behalf of voters in each Congressional district alleges that the lopsided GOP victories are a direct result of the GOP legislature drawing electoral boundaries to favor Republican candidates.
Although a Commonwealth Court judge agreed in December that congressional districts were drawn deliberately to favor Republican candidates, he ruled the maps did not violate the constitution. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, which agreed to fast track it. (New York Times coverage here.)
AFT Pennsylvania joined the largest and most influential unions in the state to weigh in on the side of the plaintiffs who brought the gerrymandering lawsuit to the court last year. Among the labor groups participating in the brief are the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, American Federation of Government Employees, AFSCME Council 13, Association of State College and University Faculties and other private and public sector unions.
In the labor community's amici brief, they argue that Pennsylvania’s Constitution sets a higher standard than the U.S. Constitution for protecting "free speech, assembly, voting, equality and non-discrimination to the issue of political gerrymandering."
"The Pennsylvania Constitution affords more robust protections than the federal constitution for free speech and assembly, voting and free and fair elections, and equality and non-discrimination," AFTPA, AFL-CIO, AFSCME and other labor unions argue. Pennsylvania's Declaration of Rights gave the people the right to "consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the legislature for redress of grievances. ...Meaningful petitions to redress grievances can only be achieved if voices of the people can be heard -- gerrymandered districts by their very nature undermine this goal."
Labor groups joined the plaintiffs in asserting that the 2011 redistricting plan approved by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed by then-GOP Governor Corbett "effectuates hyper-partisan political gerrymandering" which gives more power to one political party than to the voters themselves.
“Pennsylvania is an extreme example of politicians choosing voters rather than voters choosing who will represent them,” said AFTPA President Ted Kirsch. “Gerrymandering affects choices at the ballot box and the ability of millions of people to be heard.”
The brief urges the PA Supreme Court to re-evaluate the lawsuit based on the Pennsylvania Constitution, which provides "a higher level of protection than the federal constitution." Read the Amici Curiae brief here.
In a separate case, a panel of federal judges on Wednesday (Jan. 10) ruled in favor of the congressional boundaries drawn up by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision does not affect the case filed in the Pennsylvania courts.