HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The panel that will redraw boundaries of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts amid public education campaigns to stamp out gerrymandering was appointed a tie-breaking fifth member from the state's high court Monday.
Mark Nordenberg, the former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, was appointed by the state Supreme Court. The announcement was made in an order and in a letter to the Legislature’s caucus leaders from the chief justice, Max Baer, who is a fellow Pittsburgher.
Nordenberg, who also was Pitt's law school dean, now chairs the university’s Institute of Politics. Nordenberg, 72, stepped down as chancellor in 2014 after 18 years.
With the appointment, Nordenberg effectively will set the agenda for the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission to draw and approve new legislative districts before the 2022 elections to conform with demographic changes identified by the once-a-decade census count.
The court did not explain how it came to appoint Nordenberg. The court has a 5-2 Democratic majority, with four of those Democrats — including Baer — hailing from the Pittsburgh area.
Nordenberg gets the job amid aggressive public education campaigns that aim to root out gerrymandering by raising awareness about how districts must be drawn and helping regular people draw their own district maps using basic online tools.
To keep equal populations, the districts inevitably will have to shift away from regions where the population is stagnant — largely Republican areas in northern and western Pennsylvania — to growing regions of the state, primarily eastern and southern Pennsylvania.
Democrats have long maintained that the current map of districts is gerrymandered to favor Republicans, leading to strong Republican majorities in both chambers, despite the fact that statewide voter registration rolls favor Democrats and Democrats have won more statewide elections in the past two decades.
Republicans maintain that they win more races by finding better candidates and running better campaigns.
Nordenberg's appointment won applause from David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy.
Thornburgh's good-government group is sponsoring Draw the Lines PA, a civic education initiative aimed at educating citizens about drawing boundaries and at ending gerrymandering with the slogan “slay the gerrymander.”
Thornburgh called Nordenberg “somebody who cares deeply about the practice of good governance, a man of great integrity and great judgement. And I know he will take this assignment seriously.”
Of Nordenberg's political leanings, Thornburgh said Nordenberg is part of the “vanishing breed of people that just sit squarely in the middle of the political debate.”
House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, called Nordenberg “well qualified” for the job, while Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said Nordenberg has “extensive experience working through complex issues.”
“The citizens of Pennsylvania are counting on him to navigate the challenging process in his role as chairman of the commission,” Ward said in a statement.
Under the state constitution, each of the 50 Senate districts and each of the 203 House districts must be compact and contiguous, and as equal in population to each other as “practicable," with no districts dividing counties, cities or towns unless absolutely necessary.
However, that is not always how districts are drawn, and the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that political considerations are not forbidden in drawing district maps.
For the past three decades at least, the state Supreme Court has appointed the panel's fifth member after the four members — two Democratic lawmakers and two Republican lawmakers — could not agree on a fifth member.
That fifth member can play the critical role of forging compromise between the two partisan sides or simply selecting one side's partisan plan over the other's.
For the last two decades, the tie-breaking member of the redistricting commission was chosen by a Republican-majority court.
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