Saturday, October 31, 2009

The most important political race in a decade (or more)

The AP is running an account of the big money in the supreme court race in Pennsylvania. Surprised?  While there has been some coverage of the race, few have focused on how the race really matters. I’ll be direct…… a decade of Pennsylvania politics will depend on who wins the race for the open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Why? The court is now divided evenly by party and the election Panella as a Democrat or Melvin as a Republican will be the deciding ‘middle vote’ on decisions that split along partisan lines. .

But still why? Some news accounts have mentioned in passing that the supreme court may be of import to the redistricting process that will soon reshapePennsylvania politics. The assumption seems to be that the supreme court involvement will be limited to the inevitable litigation that will start once the redistricting plans are completed.  The stories are missing the bigger issue. 

In reality, the state supreme court’s involvement will likely begin before the process itself starts. Consider how the redistricting process will be conducted. Pennsylvania places the redistricting of the state's general assembly (house and senate) in the hands of an ad hoc reapportionment commission made up of 5 members. Article II, Section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constituion spells out the membership of the commission explicitly:

The commission shall consist of five members: four of whom shall be the majority and minority leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, or deputies appointed by each of them, and a chairman selected as hereinafter provided……… The four members within 45 days after their certification shall select the fifth member, who shall serve as chairman of the commission, and shall immediately certify his name to such elections officer. ……. If the four members fail to select the fifth member within the time prescribed, a majority of the entire membership of the Supreme Court within thirty days thereafter shall appoint the chairman as aforesaid and certify his appointment to such elections officer
Given that the Pennsylvania house and senate are currently majority Democratic and Republican respective, it seems inevitable that the (5 minus 1) member commission will be at loggerheads to choose a 5th deciding vote. That vote will devolve to the supreme court the chairperson thus chosen could be the single most important person shaping Pennsylvania poltiical geography for a decade.

Think this is not how it will evolve?  Maybe not, but it is the likely route. It is exactly what has happened in the past. In 1990 the PA house and senate were split and indeed the PA supreme court decided on the chairman who exercised much of the power in how the process evolved. The 5th member was Robert Cindrich who many know was a long-time Federal Judge in town and now counsel for UPMC. It’s a small world but that is the beginning. Cindrich made a deputy of his law partner Ken Gormley many now know at Duquesne and as past mayor Forest Hills, and as recent ACBA president among other reasons. Much of the above comes Gormley’s book on the 1991 redistricting process*.

But the names involved are amazingly familiar today. Cindrich was named chairman only after some committee infighting over the first nominee: some unknown fellow named Nordenberg** who was Dean of a law school here.
In 1970 the Pennsylvania legislature was split as well and the committee was unable to name a 5th member thus forcing it to the supreme court. The statutory members of the committee back then included State Senator Thomas Lamb, father of a current city official some may have heard of and also one Robert Fleming which might be familiar to those who go over the 62nd st. Bridge.

The results of the 1991 redistricting will have similarities to what will have to happen post 2010 because once again there will be shifts in districts from the population challenged West to growing Northeast and South-central parts of the state. The results from 1991 impact the region's politics to this day.  In 1991 they moved an entire Senate district from Allegheny County to outside of Philadelphia. The Republican incumbent of that distict, one Frank Pecora, would switch his parties and actually fight to say in office in a district 300 miles from where it was when he was first elected. His chief of staff... a fellow named Doyle who would also switch his party affiliation to become a Democrat and follow his boss into elected office back in Western Pennsylvania.  Not only that, but acrimony over the Pecora/Doyle party switch is widely held to be the rationale for the reshaping of congressional districts in Pittsburgh.  The combining of the City of Pittsburgh with the Mon Valley is widely held as a strategy to eliminate one of two traditional Democratic held districts which had been held by Bill Coyne and Mike Doyle.  Coyne having a lot more seniority the assumption by Republicans may have been he would prevail and displace Doyle... but Coyne decided to retire instead and leave the seat to Doyle. 

The congressional reapportionment that will happen at the same time is handled by state statute.. thus the state legislature is going to decide how that happens as well except more directly.  Again, after 2000 the state house and senate were both in the hands of the Republicans. This time around it is going to be a bit more messy and you wonder how the ever more  fractious Harrisburg will complete the required redistricting.   It all ties together.  The state legislature defined by this cycle will shape who in power 10 years from now when the state and federal seats are rejiggered again.  So potentially 20 years of Pennsylvania political life depends on that one marginal vote in the state supreme court and how it sways over the next couple of years.

and on the Supreme Court again... if the legislature fails to do a redistrictring in some fairly tight timelines... guess what?  It gets foisted on the Supreme Court directly.  Not an inconceivable option this time around given recent history of how well they all work together in Harrisburg.  We will see. 

What's it all mean?  The more names change, the more they stay the same. 

* Gormley, Ken.  The Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment of 1991.  Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of General Service.

**  Yes, as disclosure that would be my boss' boss' boss' boss.  Or something like that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Doyle was once a Republican? I did not know that.

Monday, November 02, 2009 11:27:00 AM  

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