HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to redraw boundaries of the state’s congressional districts has triggered a volcanic reaction from Republicans, including talk of impeaching justices and a Democratic Party plot to stop President Donald Trump.
The ruling was indeed novel: Constitutional law scholars say they know of no other state court that has ever thrown out congressional district boundaries over a partisan gerrymandering claim.
It has implications for Republican control of Congress. It also has implications for state government: Republicans say they are worried about what the court – with a 5-2 Democratic majority – may do in the future to weaken the power of a Republican-controlled Legislature.
“This is without precedent and could have far-reaching impact, not just for congressional lines, but for the rule of law and separation of powers,” said Pennsylvania’s Republican Party chairman, Val DiGiorgio.
For Republicans, the decision came at a stressful time – this year’s mid-term election is a time when the party of the president traditionally loses seats in Congress. Republicans also have enormous clout invested in the other branches of government. The GOP controls an all-time high of 32 state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 33 of 50 governor’s offices.
Democrats suggest there’s desperation in the strident Republican rhetoric.
“It all sounds rather unhinged to me,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Pittsburgh.
Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon: “Democratic judges have totally redrawn election lines in the great State of Pennsylvania.” He went on to say it was “very unfair to Republicans and to our country as a whole. Must be appealed to the United States Supreme Court ASAP!”
What Pennsylvania’s high court struck down was widely viewed as one of the nation’s most gerrymandered congressional maps. Republicans had drawn bizarrely contorted districts in 2011, breaking decades of precedent to do it. They found success, winning 13 of 18 congressional seats in three straight elections in a stretch when Democrats won 18 out of 24 statewide elections in Pennsylvania.
The court’s map is no doubt friendlier to Democrats.
To some extent, Pennsylvania is the center of a disconcerting universe for Republicans: They see a national effort to put Democrats in a better position to draw congressional maps for a decade of elections starting in 2022. That includes multimillion-dollar campaigns by the Democratic Governors Association and a group led by Eric Holder, attorney general under former President Barack Obama.
In a statement Friday, Holder said Republicans fighting the Pennsylvania court’s map “have shown they are afraid of the very voters they claim they want to represent.”
For their part, Republicans say they worry that an entrenched Democratic majority on the court has permanently commandeered Pennsylvania’s redistricting power. Then there is this: what other power will the court take from the Legislature?
To motivate voters, Republicans are attacking Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in particular as a collaborator with the court and Democrats reviled by many conservatives, among them super donor George Soros and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. A state Democratic Party spokeswoman countered that “Republicans will do anything to hold on to their rigged system.”
Republicans also connected the dots to Trump.
“The goal here is to stop the president’s agenda and to make sure that there are more Democrats in Congress than Republicans,” Pennsylvania’s Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai said.
In a sign of Republican mobilization, Pennsylvania’s most senior elected Republican, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, delivered a blistering verbal attack Tuesday just as fellow Republicans filed papers in federal courts seeking to block the new districts.
The state court’s decision, Toomey told reporters, is a “blatant, unconstitutional partisan power grab that undermines our electoral process.” He did nothing to tamp down impeachment talk, calling it a conversation that state lawmakers should have.
Talk of impeaching a justice is rare in Pennsylvania, so rare that it did not arise even as three justices left the bench amid scandals in the past five years.
“Their reaction right now is rather bizarre. It’s not befitting people in those positions to say, `when we get a decision we don’t like, let’s impeach the judges,“’ Doyle said. “We’re not a nation that operates that way. We’re a nation of laws.”
In any case, impeachment talk may be little more than saber-rattling.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have started an impeachment process a number of times, but successfully impeached a public official just once since 1803, according to the House parliamentarian. That was ex-Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994 – after he was ejected from the bench by a criminal conviction.
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