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State can still use '01 districts, judge says

| Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012

A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the state can continue to use decade-old legislative district maps, rejecting state Republican leaders' attempts to declare them unconstitutional.

Whether voters will elect state representatives and senators this year according to those old district lines, however, remains in doubt. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he will try to push a new map into law before the April 24 primary or attempt to postpone the primary.

Whether legislative leaders can do any of that within a truncated timetable, especially during a presidential election year, is uncertain.

"It's looking more like the 2001 districts might be dusted off and brought back one more time," said Chris Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

That would keep intact for at least one more election several Western Pennsylvania districts that officials planned to move to the eastern part of the state, including Sen. James Brewster's 45th District seat in McKeesport and the 22nd House District seat that Chelsa Wagner of Brookline held before she was elected Allegheny County controller.

"Regardless of your party affiliation, it's a victory for the people. It gives us an opportunity to have representation," said Brewster, a Democrat.

Turzai said he will present a redrawn map to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission on Wednesday, and the commission will vote on it Feb. 22.

State law provides a 30-day appeal period after a redistricting plan is submitted, but Turzai said he'll argue for a shortened timetable because officials went through an appeal period with the last map.

"I'm not sure we have to restart the process. I'd like to have some clarity from the (commission) chair and from the court on that issue," Turzai said.

Democrats, who successfully challenged the map that the commission created based on 2010 census data, are likely to oppose any effort to shorten the timetable.

"I could see the Democrats being nothing short of insistent on getting their allotted time on this," Borick said.

The state Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, rejected the newest district maps on Jan. 25, declaring them unconstitutional because they chopped up too many county, municipal and ward boundaries. The court ordered lawmakers to use existing districts, which were drawn in 2001 after the previous census, until a new district map was approved.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County; and Turzai asked the U.S. Eastern District Court to bar use of the 2001 lines. Districts are redrawn after every census to ensure each district includes about the same number of people. Population shifts over the past 10 years violated that constitutional equal representation rule, Turzai said.

"A delayed election this year could deprive Pennsylvania voters of their right to choose delegates to the national conventions and their candidate for" president, U.S. Eastern District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick wrote.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, called the decision "a victory for the people of Pennsylvania."

"While the Legislative Reapportionment Commission continues working to create a legal redistricting plan, judicial authorities in both state and federal courts have directed the state to proceed with the 2012 election using existing district lines. That is the only logical conclusion that will give certainty to voters who deserve to know in a timely manner which candidates will appear on the primary ballot," Dermody said.

Staff writer Jennifer Vertullo contributed to this report.

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