(In this Feb. 9 story, corrects 3rd paragraph to show that judges are elected, not appointed)
By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Republican leaders in Pennsylvania’s legislature submitted a plan for redrawing the state’s congressional districts just hours before Friday’s court-ordered deadline, but Democratic Governor Tom Wolf questioned whether the proposal will pass legal muster.
The newly-drawn political map was ordered on Jan. 22 by the state Supreme Court, which invalidated the existing congressional district boundaries as an illegal gerrymander created by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
In a 5-2 vote along party lines, the high court’s Democratic majority of elected judges found the existing map’s lines were precisely drawn to deliberately dilute the voting strength of registered Democrats, in violation of the state’s constitution.
A revamped map of the 18 U.S. House districts in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in the 2016 presidential race, could reshape the political balance in this year’s mid-term electoral battle for control of Congress.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal of the state’s high court decision, leading top Republicans in the state Senate and House of Representatives to present the governor with a proposed remedy at the 11th hour on Friday.
“The Republican legislative leaders in the House and Senate have agreed to a congressional district map that complies fully with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order and opinion,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai said in a joint statement.
But a spokesman for Wolf suggested the plan would fail to meet the high court’s requirements because it lacked approval from the state legislature as a whole.
“While the court’s order did not appear to allow for two individuals to draw a map on behalf of the entire General Assembly, Governor Wolf will review Speaker Turzai and President Scarnati’s submission in consultation with the experts retained by the administration to determine his next course of action,” the statement said.
Wolf has until Feb. 15 to accept or reject the new map.
“I intend to do my part to implement the court’s order and ensure that fair maps become Pennsylvania’s new reality,” he said in a statement earlier on Friday.
The redrawn map reduces the number of cities and counties split by district lines, among other changes, according to a spokesman from Turzai’s office.
It wasn’t immediately clear if any Democratic lawmakers played a role in devising the proposal. Wolf said he would consider his options if the map were not the result of a “bipartisan process”.
Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center, one of the groups challenging the existing congressional boundaries in court, said her organization would also review the submitted maps.
Legal battles are playing out in several U.S. states over partisan gerrymandering. Pennsylvania has long been seen as one of the worst offenders, with one of its more oddly shaped districts described derisively as “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck”.
Republicans have held 13 of the state’s 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives since the current map went into effect for the 2012 election, despite Pennsylvania’s status as a closely divided swing state.
A redrawing of district lines would likely increase Democratic chances to pick up several seats. The party needs to capture 24 seats nationwide to retake control of the House in November elections.
The state Supreme Court said it would draw the lines itself if an acceptable map is not reached by next week - a move Republican leaders have said they would consider challenging in federal court.
Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Chris Kenning in Louisville; Editing by Steve Gorman and Richard Borsuk