GOP loses bid to shield communication over congressional map
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Legislature’s two highest-ranking Republican leaders were ordered Thursday to turn over documents related to development of the state’s latest congressional districts map, which a lawsuit claims has given the GOP an unconstitutional edge in elections.
A federal judge in Philadelphia gave the leaders a week to produce communications they or aides had with the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, the party’s national redistricting effort after the 2010 census, as well as information used to develop the map.
House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati had fought disclosure, citing legislative privilege and other claims. Neither they nor their lawyers responded to requests for comment.
The order concerns one of two pending legal challenges to the congressional maps, a federal case that argues Republicans improperly used their role in administering elections to achieve partisan objectives. It is scheduled to go to trial on Dec. 4.
“We need to show that the people who drew the maps used partisan data,” said Alice Ballard, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania voters who sued. “We think these facts and data will get us very close to our goal.”
The outcome of the case, as well as a similar state court case that was fast-tracked Thursday by the state Supreme Court, could have a seismic effect on elections in Pennsylvania. It’s a swing state where Democrats outnumber Republicans and have had a recent winning record in statewide contests but are deeply in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature.
Republicans won 13 of 18 congressional seats in the 2014 and 2016 elections despite earning a little over 50 percent of the vote.
The federal judge’s order said the “legislative privilege” that Scarnati and Turzai had asserted “is a qualified privilege that may be pierced and which at a minimum does not shield communications with third parties associated with REDMAP nor protect facts and data considered in connection with redistricting.”
She said they must also produce documents from 2009-2012 over which they are not claiming any type of privilege.
It’s unclear whether the two Pennsylvania cases could result in new congressional maps in time for next year’s races, starting with the May 15 primary. Another significant unknown is how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in a pending challenge to the Wisconsin legislative districts, a case that directly addresses partisan gerrymandering.
In a court filings, the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania federal lawsuit said Scarnati and Turzai asserted legislative or First Amendment privilege regarding details of what they said was a 2011 meeting about redistricting at the Harrisburg Hilton to which all of the state’s Republican congressmen were invited, along with then-Gov. Tom Corbett’s chief of staff. Corbett, a Republican, signed off on the maps.
The plaintiffs said the meeting also included consultants to help them draw congressional district maps, but no Democrats.
Congressional district maps are also being challenged in Maryland, North Carolina and Texas. Along with Wisconsin, state legislative districts are under challenge in North Carolina and Texas.
Lawmakers’ emails provided important information during a lawsuit challenging a package of voter laws passed in North Carolina in 2013, including a photo ID requirement. In that case, emails revealed state lawmakers had requested demographic information on voters.
That data request was cited by an appeals court panel in its ruling that tossed out the voter ID law, describing it as targeting African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”
Such emails are almost always helpful, said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who argued the case on behalf of the North Carolina plaintiffs.
“People are getting more and more subtle about their discriminatory motives,” Riggs. “That’s why getting these wins, where we get whatever evidence might exist in emails or communications, it’s so important for us.”
Legislative emails between majority Republicans and a law firm hired to redraw legislative lines in Wisconsin also were used by Democrats to build a gerrymandering case they filed in 2015.
Associated Press writers David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Christina Almeida Cassidy in Atlanta contributed to this story.