Case Summary

In 2017, a group of Pennsylvania voters filed a state lawsuit in against various state election officials challenging the state's 2011 congressional redistricting plan as a partisan gerrymander that subordinated traditional redistricting criteria in order to maximize Republican electoral advantages. Unlike previous partisan gerrymandering claims that were based upon provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Plaintiffs here alleged that the plan violated the Pennsylvania Constitution's "Free and Equal Elections Clause" (Art. I, Section 5), which states that "Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage."

In early 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and invalidated the 2011 congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander under the Pennsylvania Constitution's Free and Equal Elections Clause. After analyzing the language, history and purpose of the state constitution's Elections Clause, the court found that the Clause should be given the "broadest interpretation" as governing all aspects of the electoral process and this includes a prohibition on acts that dilute the people's right and equal power to select the representative of their choice. The court's standard for evaluating the partisan gerrymandering claim under the state's Free and Equal Elections Clause utilized the state's traditional redistricting criteria, and ultimately the court held that those traditional considerations were subordinated in order to achieve an unfair partisan advantage, thereby violating the Clause.

Significance: This case marked the first time that a state's electoral districts were struck down as a partisan gerrymander based upon a State Constitution's "Free and Equal Elections" Clause, a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court seemingly blessed when it denied certiorari in this case in 2018 (Turzai v. Brandt, 139 S.Ct. 445 (2018)). In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause that federal courts lack jurisdiction over partisan gerrymandering claims, and with twenty-nine other states' constitutions containing "Free Elections" Clauses similar to Pennsylvania's, these clauses could provide potential avenues for future litigants to bring partisan gerrymandering claims in state court.

Case Library

Pennsylvania Supreme Court - No. 159 MM 2017 [178 A.3d 737 (Pa. 2018)]

U.S. Supreme Court - Nos. 17-1700; 17A909 [Turzai v. Brandt, 139 S.Ct. 445 (2018)]