In what will be an historic day, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in two major appeals cases this week. Arguments will be held on Thursday, Sept. 13, to challenge the state's recently enacted voter ID law, and the appeal to the adopted legislative redistricting plan. Both cases play a significant role in impacting voters, making the appeals some of the most highly anticipated decisions in generations.
Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed one of the nation’s toughest requirements for voter identification to participate in elections. Proponents have expressed that this requirement will prevent future voter fraud whereas opponents such as myself have argued that the mandate will disenfranchise tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of voters. What makes the arguments even more pressing is that the Supreme Court will determine if the voter ID requirement will remain in place for the Nov. 6 General Election in Pennsylvania.
The legislative redistricting plan, which is required by the Pennsylvania Constitution each decade following the federal census, sets the state's Senate and House districts for the next decade beginning in 2014. A Legislative Reappointment Commission is then established by legislative leaders who are given the task of redrawing district boundaries. This process guarantees that each citizen is equally represented as population shifts and changes take place throughout the state. However, the redistricting process is also highly partisan because of the ability to draw maps that favor one political party for many years to come.
An earlier version of the Legislative Reappointment Commission plan was rejected in January of this year by the Supreme Court with a 4-3 vote. In an unusual move, Chief Justice Ron Castille sided with plaintiffs and determined that the commission’s plan was unconstitutional because the redistricting map split up too many municipalities and drew some districts into shapes that were not properly compact, also known as “gerrymandering.” This opinion forced the commission to go back to the drawing board and create a new map, resulting in several new challenges bringing the plan back in front of the Supreme Court.
To add to the anticipation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions will also have the potential to be deadlocks. Typically, the high court is made up of seven justices. Due to one justice being suspended by the court, there are now three justices elected as Republicans and three justices elected as Democrats. As current history has shown, there is a possibility of swing votes with these Republican-supported laws.
Knowing the controversy surrounding voter identification and redistricting and realizing the probable stalemates, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, in a June 5 letter to Chief Justice Ron Castille, urged the high court to appoint a seventh justice to serve to prevent possible tie votes on pending appeals. However, this request was denied.
Most court watchers are expecting a party line vote of 3-3 when it comes to the Voter ID case. Since Commonwealth Court Judge Robin Simpson already upheld the mandate, a tie will sustain the law.
However, when it comes to redistricting, no one can really predict how Chief Justice Castille will rule. With that being said, since the final districts do not need to be determined until late 2013, Justice Castille may order a special master and let the court draw the next map instead.
No matter which political party a citizen may side with, these two court cases are sure to bring in a lot of attention across the state. The Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments on the voter ID case, in Philadelphia, starting at 9:30 a.m. with reappointment following during the afternoon session. The public can watch the arguments live on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) at www.pcntv.com.
Senator Wayne D. Fontana
42nd Senatorial District