Maybe, probably, I’m too alarmist. I do see a steady stream of indications that our system of politics and government is breaking down. Maybe that’s too strong, but here’s a recent case to ponder.
A Pennsylvania legislator named Cris Dush is circulating to his Republican colleagues a petition that, if successful, would lead to impeachment charges against the majority of the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Because why? Because they made a ruling with which he disagrees.
In a 5-2 ruling, based on provisions in the Pennsylvania Constitution that they are sworn to uphold, the Pennsylvania justices have invalidated the extremely gerrymandered map dividing the state into congressional districts.
A slightly blue lean
Pennsylvania is a purple state that has a slightly blue lean. True, Donald Trump carried it in 2016, but only by 48.2 to 47.5 percent. Republicans control the Legislature but the governor, Tom Wolf, is a Democrat, who won in 2014 by a convincing 55-45 percent margin, over his predecessor, a Republican. The U.S. senators are one from each major party. Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 10 points in 2008 and by five in 2012. That’s my case for purple but leaning slightly blue.
But because Republicans controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion in 2011 — the last time the congressional district map was redrawn — Pennsylvania’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is currently 13 Republicans and just five Democrats.
The modern tools of computerization and the current shamelessness with respect to gerrymandering in some states, make that kind of thing possible when one party has control and is willing to be shamelessly partisan.
If that control is Republican, as it was in Pennsylvania in 2011, you just draw whatever crazy shapes you need to pack as many Democrats as you can into as few districts as you can, leaving the rest of the state to be divided into whatever shapes will enable Republicans to win without “wasting” too many votes.
Of the five Democrats who won House elections in 2016, four of them received more than 80 percent of the vote. Three of them exceeded 90. The key is to torture the map so most of the Democratic acreage is tucked and twisted into as few districts as possible.
But of the 13 districts that were carried by Republicans, five of the winners took 50-some percent of the vote, and five took 60-some. Get it? That’s how computer-assisted gerrymandering works, but it leads to some pretty weirdly shaped districts.
‘Goofy kicking Donald Duck’
The New York Times wrote: “Pennsylvania is considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, with congressional districts twisted into fanciful shapes, including one that has been described as looking like ‘Goofy kicking Donald Duck.’”
And, I should note, Republicans have won all 13 of the congressional districts that were designed for them to win in all three elections since the map took effect in 2012. That’s 72 percent of the seats for Republicans in a state in which the Republican gubernatorial candidate received 45 percent of the vote.
So the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (which, I should note, currently consists of five Democrats and two Republicans) recently ruled (and the vote broke down on party lines) that the map should be thrown out and replaced by a new, fairer one that will take effect right away, in time for the 2020 elections.
Republicans appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and asked that its effect be stayed pending the appeal (so the old map with the goofy district would remain in place while the case worked its way up to the Supremes).
But (in part because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling was based on the state Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court likes to defer to state Supreme Courts on matter of their own state constitutional law), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (a Republican appointee, I should note) refused to strike down the Pennsylvania court’s ruling or issue a stay on its application.
And, bear in mind, as I mentioned above, although the Pennsylvania Legislature is still controlled by Republicans, the current governor is a Democrat, who has veto power over the map. So the new map will have to be a lot less partisan to become law. There are some estimates that a fairer map might flip three or four red seats to blue.
Deadline to redraw: Friday
Alito’s action left in place a deadline of this Friday (!!!) for the legislature to draw a new, fairer, less-gerrymandered new map so candidates for the 2018 congressional elections can get organized. Primaries for all those races in U.S. House districts that currently don’t exist are scheduled for May 15! The Pennsylvania high court is prepared to impose its own map if the Legislature won’t do it in time.
(If you are not a regular Black Ink reader, I should note that this story has many elements in common with something that happened in Minnesota in 1931-32. The Republican Legislature and the Farmer-Labor governor didn’t agree on a new map of congressional districts, and Minnesota ended up electing all of its U.S. House members in a statewide at-large election with no districts at all.)
I said at the top that I worry about our system breaking down. The situation in Pennsylvania suggests a worrisome breakdown of normal levels of bipartisan compromise. But that’s a trend that’s been building for many years in many ways in many places.
Dush’s hoped-for solution
As I also mentioned at the top, the bit about a systemic breakdown focuses on a particular member of the Pennsylvania House named Cris Dush. He may be of no importance. I don’t know if his big idea of how to deal with this situation will get anywhere. But when I read about it how Dush wants to handle the problem, it set me off on this post to warn against hyper-partisanship and a political war that will seek, find and exploit the soft spots in our system.
As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dush’s response to the crisis is to start circulating a petition to Republican legislators to start impeachment proceedings against all of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of the ruling to invalidate the existing district map.
I have no idea whether he will get far with this. I suppose the legislature has the power to impeach and remove state Supreme Court justices. But you would expect such an action to be for some high crimes more serious than making a ruling that the party controlling the Legislature dislikes.
The Inquirer said of Dush’s impeachment plan:
It’s unclear exactly how far that attempt will go. Dush said he expects to introduce legislation that will move quickly through committee. But House Majority Leader Dave Reed said Republican leaders in the House had not yet discussed the effort.
In 1987, for the bicentennial of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, scholar Michael Kammen wrote a highly regarded book about the Constitution called “A Machine that Would Go of Itself,” referring to a belief by some (not necessarily Kammen) that the fabled “checks and balances” of the Constitution were so cleverly designed that they virtually guaranteed success to the American experiment with self-government.
Yes, impeachment was among those famous checks and balances. Some Democrats are hoping to see the current occupant of the White House impeached and removed, although I don’t take that seriously, especially since it would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict and remove a president.
Nor do I take Dush’s impeachment scheme seriously, except as a reminder that if we get polarized enough, things fall apart.