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State Supreme Court Demands Fair and Timely Special Elections

A discussion of the recent State Supreme Court decisions that nullified the Republican Reapportionment Plan and ordered the special elections to be held at the same time as the primary on April 24.

The state system of checks and balances was harnessed by our founding fathers to make sure that no branch of government became too powerful.

Many of the state governments had the same idea and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was no exception. The State Supreme Court, on occasion, had to rebuff the legislature on matters of public policy. However, the justices of the court have been particularly busy lately trying to ensure that when we next return to the voting booths, we will be voting in properly represented districts and at the appropriate time to fill six vacant seats in the state house. 

Two recent decisions shot down a Republican Reapportionment Plan and, in a separate ruling, forced the Speaker of the House to hold the special elections on the date of the upcoming primary.    

The first decision came on Jan. 25 when Republican Chief Justice Ronald Castille sided with three Democrats on the court ordering the GOP redistricting plan null and void. The ruling came as a surprise to many who watched majority parties over the years configure election lines drawn for party advantage. 

Most people doubted the court would step in this time especially with a majority of the Justices being Republican. 

However, the ruling specifically stated the Republican plan violated article two section 16 of Constitution which reads in part "no county, municipality, and ward should be divided unless absolutely necessary."

In short, the Reapportionment Committee was basically flagged for gerrymandering. 

To add to the embarrassment of the committee, the four-judge majority gave signals that they preferred the map drawn by a Lehigh County piano teacher named Amanda Smith. The assumption at this point was that the special elections would simply be held of April 24 using the 2001 lines.   

Upon reaching the 60-day deadline to call the special elections, Smith simply announced that he was powerless to call the special election until he was given further instruction from the Reapportionment Committee. 

Perhaps a more believable explanation was that a delay would be to the Republican advantage. 

The majority of the seats in the special election are predicted to be Democrat victories as three will take place in Philadelphia and another in a heavily Democratic district in Allegheny County. 

The remaining two races are expected to be closer: The 153rd District in Montgomery County formerly held by Democrat Josh Shapiro and the 134th District largely in Lehigh County formerly held by Republican Doug Reichley.  The race in the 134th is expected to be especially close because although it had been held most recently by a Republican, Democrat Patrick Slattery has dedicated significant effort over the past three years into winning the seat.    

A delay would have helped prolong a stronger Republican majority which would have been especially important as they finalize the budget proposed by Governor Tom Corbett. 

Of course that would ignore the fact that having special elections would cost the counties perhaps an additional $1 million.  It also would have ensured that citizens would have gone longer without representation. 

East Penn School District Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger mentioned during a recent school board meeting the the district was presently without representation and although he and Doug Reichley did not always agree, Reichley had made himself very available. 

Regardless of what caused the delay, the Supreme court on Feb. 24 ordered Smith to call the elections for the same night as the primary using the 2001 district boundaries.    

In the recent confusion surrounding the 2012 special elections there have certainly been casualties. 

For example, Attorney Jim Smith was prepared to run in the 134th District. After making the announcement to run, raising money and beginning to organize his campaign, Smith had to drop out of the race because he no longer lived in the 134th District after the decision was made to use the 2001 boundaries. 

Another and perhaps more important casualty is the electorate. 

Politics is confusing enough and the recent poor decision-making on the part of the Pennsylvania Republican Party has the potential to make voters even more cynical and perhaps less participatory then they already are. 

I doubt those who originally enacted the checks and balances in American government envisioned courts having to get quite this involved in election laws so close to election day.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mark Spengler March 07, 2012 at 02:34 AM
Clarification: The Smith I mentioned in the article from the line below is Speaker of the PA State House Same Smith Upon reaching the 60-day deadline to call the special elections, Smith simply announced that he was powerless...
Mark Spengler March 07, 2012 at 02:36 AM
Sam not same (yikes)

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