109th Lineup: 12 R, 7 D
108th Lineup: 12 R, 7 D
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Pennsylvania has 19 House members, the fewest since the 12th Congress assembled in 1811, when it had 18. It lost two seats in the reapportionment following the 2000 Census, just as it had after the seven preceding Censuses.
In 2001 and 2002 Republicans, with the governorship, a 29-21 majority in the state Senate and a 104-99 majority in the state House, were in firm control of redistricting and were determined to redraw the lines so as to transform an 11-10 margin in the House delegation to 13-6. Demographics suggested eliminating one district each from Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh area.
In December 2001, state Senate Republicans unveiled their plan. Involved in drawing it were Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Melissa Hart. Both had won Pittsburgh area House seats previously held by Democrats--Santorum in 1990 and Hart in 2000--and both wanted to eliminate one Democratic and create one Republican district in the Pittsburgh area. Hart insisted she wanted to keep Democratic Beaver County in her 4th District. The Senate plan put three pairs of Democratic incumbents into the same districts: Tim Holden and Paul Kanjorski, John Murtha and Frank Mascara, and Joe Hoeffel and Robert Borski. It created new Republican-leaning districts with no incumbents in metro Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It seemed likely to raise the Republican edge to 13-6. The Senate passed it December 11, 27-22, basically along party lines.
But House Majority Leader John Perzel of Philadelphia had a different idea. Perzel is from Northeast Philadelphia, and had been reelected by only 92 votes in 2000, after Democrats put together a registration and voter turnout drive; he was eager to get even. He also cultivated a good relationship with Bob Brady, 1st District congressman and Philadelphia Democratic chairman. Perzel and Brady wanted to preserve three Philadelphia seats, which meant putting more Philadelphia than suburban Democrats in the new district pairing Philadelphian Bob Borski and suburbanite Joe Hoeffel. Perzel's House plan protected Murtha, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, and did not create a new Republican-leaning suburban Pittsburgh district.
In the days that followed, Perzel got phone calls from NRCC Chairman Tom Davis and White House political strategist Karl Rove. Georgia Democrats had just passed a redistricting plan that seemed likely to cost Republicans seats they had counted on, and they asked Perzel to accept the Senate plan. He said there weren't enough votes to pass it in the House. But by early January 2002, House and Senate Republicans reached agreement. Their new plan made adjustments in western Pennsylvania to please Murtha; Mascara's house was placed across the street in the new Republican-leaning district in suburban Pittsburgh. Instead of pairing Democrats Holden and Kanjorski, it put Holden and Republican George Gekas in the same district. Overall it eliminated four Democratic seats and created two Republican-leaning seats.
Lawsuits were filed in both federal and state courts. Democrats argued that the plan was unconstitutional as an obvious partisan gerrymander. But the U.S. Supreme Court in racial redistricting cases in the 1990s had said that, while it was unconstitutional to draw contorted boundaries for racial reasons, it was permissible to do so for partisan reasons. The state Supreme Court rejected the Democrats' arguments. But on April 8, the three-judge federal court ruled that the plan was unconstitutional because there was a difference of 19 between the districts' population, and that the difference should have been 1; this was based on a 1980s U.S. Supreme Court case overturning a much larger population discrepancy. The court invited the legislature to amend its plan and said the election could be put off from May 21 to July 16. The legislature passed a new plan April 15 with a population discrepancy of only 1 and with minor changes, which transferred 0.6% of the state's population into different districts. But the primary season was already on; the filing deadline was March 12. Republicans asked the court to allow 2002 elections to take place under the first plan and some Democrats, afraid that their gubernatorial candidates Ed Rendell and Bob Casey Jr. would exhaust their funds in their primary fight while Republican Mike Fisher was unopposed, joined them. The court acceded.
The plan achieved some but not all of its partisan aims. Republicans took the new suburban districts, but won only narrowly in the new 6th District. Mascara decided to run against Murtha in the primary; Murtha won handily. Borski decided to retire from the House. Democrat Holden beat Republican Gekas in the new Republican-leaning 17th District. The result was a 12-7 Republican delegation. But the results indicate that Republicans' hold on several districts is shaky and suggest they may change partisan hands some time between 2004 and 2010. In January 2003 a three-judge federal court approved the legislature's April 15 plan. In April 2004 the Supreme Court upheld the plan by a 5-4 vote. The plurality opinion, by Justice Antonin Scalia, held that the Constitution doesn't provide "a judicially enforceable limit on the political considerations that the states and Congress may take into account when districting." In other words, there is no way for a court to say when a political plan that meets the equal population standard is too political. Justice Anthony Kennedy, casting the swing vote, upheld the Pennsylvania plan but said that there still might be some role for judges in policing political gerrymanders. But Kennedy set forth no clear standard, and it seems unlikely that the courts will ever encounter a more plainly political plan than Pennsylvania's.