Pennsylvania Dems fume over redistricting court case

To a surprise for Democrats this week, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which will now give a conservative lower court outsized leverage in determining the new maps, rather than the Democratic majority Court. Now several House Democrats fear their party’s carefully crafted process strategy could potentially backfire and complicate an already chaotic battle to redraw their state’s map — even as Elias and his team insist there were no missteps.

“This is the first time I’ve felt nervous about re-electing,” said a person closely involved in the Pennsylvania Democrats’ trial, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the ongoing court case .

Both Elias and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which oversees the party’s legal efforts, said the lawsuits must first be brought to the lower, more conservative court. But the tension between the state and national actors on complex legal issues underscores the height of fears in a state that is key to Democrats’ dwindling hopes of retaining a House majority.

“It went to the Commonwealth Court anyway,” Elias said, vigorously defending the strategy. “I don’t know where their split is.”

“We’re all back and forth with these courts in the process,” added Kelly Ward Burton, the president of the NDRC, whose affiliate is involved in the lawsuit. The challenge must begin before the Commonwealth lower court, she said. “And I think there is still potential to achieve that [state] Supreme Court, so I wouldn’t say we’re worried anymore.”

The state legislature and governor will almost certainly miss the unofficial Jan. 24 deadline set by Pennsylvania’s election officials, leaving the conservative lower court in charge of card selection. But Elias pointed to a different date: the end of last month, citing statements by a state official that to open the February candidate submission deadline in time, the card would need to pass the Legislature by the end of the year.

Concerned Democrats say the national group’s strategy could cost valuable time and energy, at least ahead of the midterms, because it involves the lower conservative echelon. At worst, they say, it could threaten several key incumbents and result in Republicans taking over a large majority of the state’s congressional districts.

Most of the state’s congressional delegation, which met Thursday night for a briefing on the latest developments, is unwilling to comment on the records until the map is finalized. But privately, Democrats are angered this week after the state’s highest court refused to intervene in map-drawing, dashed hopes they could avoid a contentious fight in the lower courts.

Asked if she has concerns that the state Supreme Court doesn’t have jurisdiction yet, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said, “The whole redistribution affects us all.”

But Wild and others declined to comment on the card or the lawsuit until it was final.

The fight over redistribution has been so consuming that several members of the House, including Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), have raised the issue with Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder who now chairs the party’s Redistribution Committee. Houlahan and Dean Holder pressed during an independent call hosted by the New Democrat Coalition this week, according to several people familiar with the comments.

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough took offense at the case. McCullough is perhaps best known for giving Trump a brief legal victory in November 2020 when she ordered state officials to pause the process of certifying election results. (That was later overturned by the Supreme Court.)

However, the NDRC often files pre-emptive lawsuits to prepare courts to engage before potential standoffs in divided-government states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Waiting to ask the court for help after the deadlines have already passed could speed up the line drawing process – and it’s possible they could try to appeal directly to the state Supreme Court, only to be told to go to the Commonwealth return court.

Not all Democrats are predicting the worst, pointing out that the state supreme court is still likely to step in if the lower court selects or creates a card that the state supreme court would dismiss as unfair. But it’s raising tensions among an already nervous Democratic delegation, as the state is already losing a seat this year and the delay in delivering the census data has put them in an even bigger time crunch.

The judicial standoff stems from the divided Pennsylvania government: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has the right to veto any bill enacted by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature. The card would likely always be decided in court, but some Democrats hoped it could go straight to the state’s liberal-leaning Supreme Court. Three years ago, this panel slammed a Republican-drawn map of the past decade, shifting the delegation of 13 Republicans and five Democrats to an even split.

It’s also a particularly high-stakes year for the tightly divided battleground state, with a competitive gubernatorial and Senate race all on the ballot.

And while Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of State has called for the completion of a congressional map by Jan. 24, few in the state believe it will be possible.

Instead, the lower court has said it will select its own card by the end of this month, leaving congressional candidates in painful limbo. Many expect that important deadlines, such as the March date for declaring a candidate or the May state primary, will have to be pushed back unless an agreement is reached sooner between Republicans in the state legislature and Wolf.

There is little sign of compromise. Republicans passed a new congressional card out of the State House on Wednesday Wolf criticized last month as “the result of intentional line drawing decisions favoring Republican candidates.”

House Democrats have invested in a litigious national redistribution strategy with the formation of the National Democratic Redistribution Committee in 2017. Holder and former President Barack Obama have lent their star power to the effort, and the group, with help from Elias, has filed lawsuits challenging maps drawn and commissioned by the GOP as unconstitutional.

Elias, who has represented prominent Democratic candidates for decades, helped expand voting access ahead of the 2020 election. After the election, he was at the forefront of Democrats’ legal efforts to seal Biden’s victory, and was successful more than 60 cases to conclude Trump’s challenge to the results.

The longtime attorney has also worked on redistribution in dozens of states. That puts him in a uniquely high-profile position and may make him a target of the wrath of lawmakers awaiting their fate in the once-a-decade trial.

“It’s nerve-wracking for them. I totally get it. You have no tickets. You are facing a deadline. It’s not clear how the maps will be produced at this point,” Burton said of the Pennsylvania delegation.

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