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Supreme Court Pass Means Pennsylvania Must Redraw Congressional Maps In 10 Days

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address in February 2017 in Harrisburg, Pa. He and Republican leaders have a week to come up with new congressional maps for the state.
Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address in February 2017 in Harrisburg, Pa. He and Republican leaders have a week to come up with new congressional maps for the state.

Updated at 4:08 p.m. ET

Pennsylvania will soon have new congressional maps.

The United States Supreme Court has decided not to block a state court ruling requiring Pennsylvania's Legislature to immediately redraw its legislative boundaries.

Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court had previously ruled those 18 congressional districts — drawn by a Republican Legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2011 — were overly partisan and violated the state Constitution.

The state's Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature now have until Feb. 15 to draw new lines.

"The U.S. Supreme Court correctly recognized that there is no reason to delay implementing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's order," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Now, all parties must focus on getting a fair map in place. Gerrymandering is wrong and we must correct errors of the past with the existing map. My team is ready, willing and able to work with the General Assembly to ensure a new map is fair and within the clear orders given by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court."

Democrats had already been eyeing the Philadelphia suburbs as a prime target for picking up Republican-held congressional seats this fall. The ruling — and the new maps that will follow — will boost Democrats' efforts.

"I think a fair map in Pennsylvania can give Democrats an opportunity to win up to five seats in Pennsylvania," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NPR last week.

Democrats have pointed to several of the long, thin districts drawn on the eastern edge of the state as prime examples of lines drawn to maximize the number of Republican-held seats. The state is currently represented by 12 Republicans and five Democrats in the House, with one empty seat that was formerly held by a Republican.

The map passed with bipartisan support in 2011. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania's General Assembly have decried the state court ruling as partisan and have refused to provide the court with map-drawing data requested by the judges.

"We still do not believe that there was a violation of the state Constitution, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can direct us to draw a new congressional map, or that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the authority to draw a new Congressional District Map under the Pennsylvania Constitution or United States Constitution," state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said in a statement.

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman conceded the 2011 maps were drawn with politics partly in mind but argued that's perfectly valid. The U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican said, has repeatedly ruled that state legislatures have the right to draw district lines.

"Obviously the Legislature is a political body. We have Republicans and we have Democrats. It's a political body by definition," he told NPR. "So they've put that in the hands of a political body to make decisions. If you look at maps in Illinois, you look at maps in Maryland, I think you'll see maps that have interesting lines as well, that favor [Democrats]. Because they were in control. But the Supreme Court has time and time, and federal courts have time and time, ruled that that is allowed."

A federal court recently upheld Pennsylvania's congressional districts. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering two cases that test whether extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. One case tests state legislative district lines drawn in Wisconsin, while the second looks at a congressional district in Maryland. The court is expected to rule by June.

But Pennsylvania's ruling was based on the state, not federal, Constitution, and Justice Samuel Alito declined to interfere.

That means Pennsylvania's new map has to be drawn immediately. The state court ruling gave Pennsylvania's General Assembly until Friday to draw new boundaries and Wolf an additional week to approve or veto the new map.

If Wolf and Republican lawmakers can't reach a consensus by Feb. 15, the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court will draw the lines itself. The deadline for prospective candidates for Congress to file with the state is in March.

Wolf, like many Democrats, has long decried the 2011 lines as overly partisan. Comparing elections to baseball, Wolf said, "I have my favorite home team, and I love to see them win, but I would not like to see them win if the game were unfair and they got five strikes, while the opponents got two strikes."

But Wolf has declined to publicly provide specifics on what he would like lawmakers to prioritize — geographic compactness, competitiveness or other factors — as they race to draw new lines. "My biggest concern is unfairness," he told NPR.

Pennsylvania Republicans argue the state Supreme Court has now mandated an unrealistically rushed timeline. Wolf disagrees. "I think people have gerrymandered districts in far less time," he said.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.