For the average person, the term gerrymandering may be unfamiliar, or mean nothing at all. Yet for political science professors and students alike, it’s one of the most talked about and hotly debated concepts of our era.
West Chester University Professor John Kennedy held an event last week to discuss the recent gerrymandering court case, its potential impact on U.S. politics and his own starring role in the court proceedings.
First, for those unfamiliar, a quick break down of gerrymandering and the case in Pennslyvania. Gerrymandering is a concept named after former Revolutionary War era Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry. It refers to drawing political boundaries with intent to give a partisan advantage to one party.
Most often gerrymandering comes up in the boundaries of electoral constituency, from city council districts to congressional districts. The current debate in Pennsylvania refers to congressional districts for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gerrymandering uses techniques of either packing one side’s voters into safe districts where they cannot threaten the other side’s seats, or cracking apart critical voter blocks for one side into multiple districts so as to waste their votes in an election that will safely go to the other side.
In 2011, after the 2010 census, the Republicans drew up new maps for the congressional districts in Pennsylvania. Since then, every election cycle has had a 13-5 split Republican to Democrat.
In the summer of 2017, the League of Women Voters brought a suit against the state of Pennsylvania, claiming that the Republican Party had unfairly given themselves an advantage during reapportionment.
This suit was taken by the law firm Arnold and Porter, founded in 1946 by future Associate Supreme Court Justice Fortas. This firm is particularly known for their involvement and representation of Clarence Gideon in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright that made it a requirement to provide an attorney in a criminal case in the event that the defendant cannot afford their own.
In late June of 2017, Arnold and Porter’s lawyers contacted Kennedy to inquire whether he would be interested in being an expert witness for the plaintiffs in this case. He was selected for his knowledge of Pennsylvania communities and politics, as he has authored a number of books on the subject.
On Nov. 9, 2017 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided to intervene and force the Commonwealth court to hear the case. On their way back from Harrisburg to Washington D.C., lawyers from Arnold and Porter called Kennedy and informed him that it was time to get to work.
One of the traditional criteria of districts is that it should be composed of communities of interest, and Kennedy’s role as a witness was to provide the court with a wealth of knowledge of how the current congressional map has affected these communities.
Arnold and Porter gave Kennedy a deadline of Nov. 24 for his testimony, in order to submit it to the court by the Nov. 27 deadline. He began working on his testimony for at least ten hours a day, gathering data and going over research.
“My Thanksgiving dinner was about a half an hour, I was going through data for ten to twelve hours that day,” Kennedy said.
Once he submitted his testimony, the two lawyers assigned to assist Kennedy in his process started preparing him to testify. The defendants had a Dec. 4 deadline, which was later than the plaintiff’s deadline, giving them access to the plaintiff’s witnesses reports before they had to submit their own. It ultimately proved to be irrelevant because the defendant’s witnesses’ reports were thrown out.
On Monday, Dec. 11, the trial began. Kennedy testified the following day for three hours. He spent the previous days preparing with his lawyers. Kennedy said first and foremost he had to, “think about what [he] said before [he] was going to say it, and then after [he] was done saying it to say no more.” His lawyers warned that the defendant’s counsel would try to make him feel less credible by asking him needlessly complicated questions that were not particularly pertinent to the case.
On Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the 2011 map, and issued an order to the Republican legislature to draw a new one in time for the May primaries. They failed to produce a non-gerrymandered map, so the Court adopted one they requested to be drawn by Stanford Professor Chris Warshaw.
Some of the more egregious gerrymandered districts included the 7th, the 10th and the 12th districts. Kennedy discussed these at length during his testimony. During a presentation he gave on his experience with this case last week, he noted the infamous boundaries of the 7th District, which many have characterized as being shaped like “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”
Kennedy laughed when saying, “if they had been less obvious when drawing up this district in 2011, then they probably could have gotten away with it.” He shook his head, before adding that the two larger parts of the district are held together by the parking lot of Creed’s Seafood and Steaks.
The 10th District included a large swath of the northeastern part of the state while swooping down and containing a large section of central Pennsylvania as well. Kennedy noted that it was a 200-mile journey from one end of the district to another, and that from the farthest point in the district it was a 75-mile journey to the nearest congressional office. This was one of the pillars of his argument that the 2011 map had a harmful impact on voters.
While condemning the boundaries, Kennedy also stated that the 12th District was brilliantly devised to give a Republican advantage. Republican lawmakers used technology not available in previous reapportionments to cut out a small but significant missing “appendage” of Democratic voters.
When asked about his role in this entire process, Kennedy called it “without question, the highlight of my professional career” and that it was “great honor to have the responsibility that comes with having that kind of an impact.”
He talked about how he received many letters and emails from people he didn’t personally know stating that they were counting on him. Kennedy said, “because of that pressure, it made it one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever done.” He was quick to add, “but that was what made it really rewarding. A year ago I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Kennedy’s impact on the case and the impact of the case overall has the potential to be larger than initially thought. This was the first congressional map tossed for political reasons.
Currently, there are two State Supreme Court cases involving gerrymandered districts in Maryland and Wisconsin, and Kennedy stated that although the Supreme Court wouldn’t look to Pennsylvania’s s case for precedent, a framework now exists for the cases to be heard.
Kennedy estimates that if these two cases result in the maps being struck down, the floodgates would be open, and we could see potentially 15 to 20 lawsuits involving political gerrymandering across the country.
Alex Shakhazizian is a fourth-year student majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. ✉ AS823512@wcupa.edu.
Reese Hamilton is a fourth-year student majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. ✉ RH840183@wcupa.edu.