Gerrymandering case reaches Pennsylvania court with stakes for 2018 election
File Photo: Voters REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

Pennsylvania's high court will hear arguments on Wednesday on whether the state's congressional districts were illegally drawn to benefit Republican lawmakers, acase that could have major ramifications for the 2018 midterm elections.

The challenge, brought by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, a civic advocacy group, and several Democratic voters, is one of several lawsuits nationwide seeking to limit politicians from drawing lines to give one party the advantage in elections, a practice known as partisan gerrymandering.

If the court rules for the plaintiffs, it could order new maps in time for the 2018 elections, giving Democrats a better chance of picking up several congressional seats and increasing their odds of retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans.

Despite Pennsylvania's status as a battleground state in presidential elections, Republicans have held 13 of its 18 congressional seats since the latest map was produced in 2011 by the Republican-led state legislature. Nationwide, Democrats need to flip two dozen seats to regain control of the House.

The state is considered one of the most gerrymandered in the country, giving rise to derogatory nicknames like "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck" for the bizarrely shaped 7th Congressional District.

Following a weeklong trial in December, a state judge, Kevin Brobson, ruled the plaintiffs had shown the map was drawn to benefit Republicans. But he said they failed to prove a constitutional violation because they did not spell out a legal standard to differentiate "between permissible partisan considerations and unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering."

The state Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over the case, is free to adopt or reject Brobson's findings. Five of the court's seven judges are Democrats.

The case is similar to a challenge the U.S. Supreme Court is considering, in which Democrats have argued that Wisconsin Republicans violated the U.S. Constitution by drawing district lines that deprived Democratic voters of their free speech and equal protection rights. The court is scheduled to rule on that case by June.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit, however, relies on the state constitution, not the federal one.

The U.S. Supreme Court has previously suggested that partisan gerrymandering could run afoul of the Constitution but has never articulated a standard to measure such a violation.

Partisan gerrymandering has grown more potent with the advent of mapmaking technology and precise voter data, according to critics.

Last week, a split panel of federal judges rejected a separate challenge to Pennsylvania's congressional district lines. In North Carolina, U.S. judges ordered that state to redraw its maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

(Writing by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)