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GOP congressmen challenge new Pennsylvania district map

Pennsylvania's highest court overstepped its authority in drawing new congressional district lines and did not give state lawmakers enough time to produce a map of their own, eight Republican congressmen said in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The complaint in Harrisburg federal court argued against the legality of the map put in place Monday by the state Supreme Court, and said a 2011 Republican-crafted map should remain in use this year.

The plaintiffs are suing top elections official under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, asking for an injunction to prevent the Department of State from implementing the new plan.

"Far from being free of politics, it appears every choice in the court drawn plan was to pack Republicans into as few districts as possible, while advantaging Democrats," the plaintiffs alleged.

The Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, which helped argue the successful case against the 2011 map in the state courts, on Thursday called the Republican lawsuit "baseless" and in a federal court filing said independent analysts found the court's map shows no sign of partisan bias. The law center also said that Republicans who control the state Legislature never tried to pass a replacement map in the time allotted by the court.

A separate legal challenge to the new map by two senior Republican legislative leaders is currently awaiting action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A spokesman for Wolf said he and the elections agency "are complying with the court's order to implement the remedial map and assuring the commonwealth is prepared for the primary election."

The 2011 map is widely considered among the nation's most gerrymandered, a mélange of jagged lines and odd shapes that include one likened to the cartoon character Goofy kicking Donald Duck. Some Republicans acknowledge the map was gerrymandered, but say that is not unconstitutional.

It has proven to be a political winner for the GOP, helping the party maintain a 13-5 edge in the state's congressional delegation over three straight election cycles. Democrats have about 800,000 more registered voters and a recent winning record in statewide elections, although Republicans hold wide majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. Republican President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania in 2016.

An analysis conducted through PlanScore.org concluded the state court's redrawn map would eliminate "much of the partisan skew" favoring Republicans on the old GOP-drawn map, but not all of it.

Democrats hope a new map in Pennsylvania will help them retake majority control of the U.S. House this year. Six congressman elected in 2016 are not running again, an unusually large number that has helped draw a slew of would-be candidates seeking to replace them.

The plaintiffs include seven Republican members of Congress who are expected to seek re-election: Reps. Ryan Costello, Mike Kelly, Tom Marino, Scott Perry, Keith Rothfus, Lloyd Smucker and Glenn Thompson.

Not among them is U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs who wants to turn over redistricting to an independent, non-partisan commission.

Incumbents said they have already spent money on re-election campaigns in their existing districts, and that ongoing work to help constituents they may no longer represent is likely to be disrupted.

The federal lawsuit was filed the day after Republicans asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the court-ordered map from being implemented. Some of the same lawyers worked on both filings, and the approaches are notably similar.

In throwing out the 2011 map in January, all five Democrats on the state Supreme Court sided with Democratic voters who challenged the map, saying it ran afoul of the state constitution's guarantee of free and equal elections. One of the Democratic justices, Max Baer, has been critical of the compressed time frame. The new lawsuit drew heavily from the minority opinions in the state case filed by Baer and the court's two Republican justices, Thomas Saylor and Sallie Mundy.

The legal scramble comes on the eve of a very busy time for congressional candidates hoping to get on the May 15 primary ballot. Congressional candidates have from Feb. 27 to March 20 to collect and submit enough signatures to qualify.

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