Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspends primary election calendar

Decision comes as justices review a lawsuit over congressional redistricting.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court temporarily has suspended the primary election calendar while it reviews a lawsuit over congressional redistricting.

Candidates for the May 17 primary were to start gathering signatures for petitions on Feb. 15 to get on the primary ballot, but the high court suspended the process “pending further order” as justices prepare for a Feb. 18 hearing on a new congressional district map.

The temporary suspension, which came down Wednesday, applies to all petitions for congressional and legislative races, the U.S. Senate and governorship, according to The Associated Press.

The order comes two days after Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, a Republican assigned as special master in the case, issued a 228-page report to the high court following days of hearings on 13 proposed maps submitted by lawmakers, the governor, advocacy organizations and others.

McCullough recommended the Supreme Court adopt and implement congressional districts in House Bill 2146 as approved by the legislature. Democrats in the General Assembly opposed the bill because they claim they were shut out of the process. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed HB 2146 on Jan. 26.

“Although Governor Wolf vetoed HB 2146 and that bill never obtained the official status of a duly enacted statute, neither Governor Wolf nor any other party herein has advanced any cognizable legal objection to the constitutionality” of the bill, McCullough wrote.

The judge also suggested shortening the three-week petition period to two weeks starting on March 1.

The Supreme Court, which holds a 5-2 Democrat advantage, is giving plaintiffs and defendants in the case a week to review McCullough’s findings and file exceptions before moving forward.

“On or before February 14, 2022, any party or amicus participant previously designated by the court below may file with this court exceptions to the Special Master’s report along with a brief in support thereof,” the Supreme Court ordered last week. “This court will hold oral arguments on these exceptions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on February 18, 2022, beginning at 9:30 a.m.”

Census data show Pennsylvania’s population of 12.8 million grew slower than other states at about 2.4% over the past decade, resulting in a reduction of congressional delegates from 18 to 17. The current delegation is split 9-9 between Democrats and Republicans, with U.S. Democratic Reps. Conor Lamb and Mike Doyle not seeking reelection this year.

McCullough wrote in her findings that HB 2146 “compares favorably to all of the other maps submitted herein, including the 2018 redistricting map, it was drawn by a non-partisan good government citizen, subjected to the scrutiny of the people and duly amended, it creates a Democratic leaning map which underscores its partisan fairness and, otherwise, is a reflection of the ‘policies and preferences of the state, as expressed in statutory and constitutional provisions or in the reapportionment plans proposed by the state legislature.’”

The congressional districts in HB 2146 were originally created by Lehigh Valley resident Amanda Holt before amendments in the House State Government Committee chaired by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York.

The last time a similar process played out in the courts to select a congressional district map in 1992, the Supreme Court ultimately accepted the lower court’s recommendation, according to the AP.