About 350,000 Pennsylvanians without representation in state Capitol
Blogger's Note: The following is a slightly altered version of a PA Independent story that moved Wednesday night.
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG —The normally routine process of filling a few vacant state House seats has been complicated by this year’s messy legislative redistricting process.
|Josh Shapiro, left, and Leslie Richard election night|
And the mess includes the results of two local election, leaving both seats vacant.
They are: the seat left empty when Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who represented the 153rd District, was elected Montgomery County Commissioner; and when Republican Doug Reichley,who used to represent the 134th Dist. in Berks and Lehigh counties, was elected a Lehigh County judge in November.
In addition to those two, there are four other seats, three in Philadelphia and one in Pittsburgh, affected by the situation.
As a result, about 350,000 Pennsylvania residents are without representation in the state House — and might not have a voice in the state Capitol when the budget passes in June.
Six House seats were vacated when members retired at the end of 2010 to take local offices they had won in the November elections. State law prohibits members from serving in the General Assembly while simultaneously holding local office.
By state law, special elections must be scheduled within 10 days following a vacancy. But when the vacancy occurs while redistricting is taking place, the House speaker is allowed to wait until 10 days after the state Supreme Court approves the new legislative district maps.
|House Speaker Sam Smith|
Democrats are pressuring Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, to call the special elections on April 24 to coincide with the state’s primary election. But state law requires 60 days of notice in advance of an election, so the announcement would have to be made by the end of this week.
“Special elections should take place on the April 24 date that is already set for the primary,” said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
Five of the empty districts are in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and are considered favorable to Democrats — who are outnumbered in the state House, 110-87 — while the sixth is in the Allentown suburbs and could be won by either major party.
On Tuesday, Smith said his hands were tied by state law that prevented him from authorizing special elections to fill those seats until after the state Supreme Court approves the new legislative maps.
But he rejected the notion he was delaying the election for political purposes.
“It’s not like it changes the majority in the House,” Smith said. “That’s not the driving factor; it’s that I’m stuck with a structure for special elections in reapportionment years that says you call it when the final (maps are) in place.”
The court rejected the first attempt to draw new maps, and there is no timetable for when the new maps will be approved.
A group of Democrats from across the state have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, asking the court to force Smith’s hand, because 350,000 residents in six districts are disenfranchised by the vacant seats.
"Depriving hundreds of thousands of citizens of representation in the House not only would be unconstitutional, it would be patently unreasonable," reads a portion of the lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Smith’s lawyer, Conrad O’Brien, filed a legal response arguing that the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction for making a decision about the special elections and does not have the authority to tell the House speaker when such elections can be held.
There is no timetable for when the state Supreme Court will rule on the matter, but Patton said a decision should be made by the end of the week.
In the meantime, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission continues to hammer out the details of the revised maps, but there is no timeline for its completion.