HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A revised plan to redraw the boundaries of Pennsylvania's legislative districts won the unanimous approval Wednesday of the state Supreme Court, which rejected renewed appeals by citizen challengers and Democrats who argued the plan, like the previous version, was driven by political considerations and did not meet constitutional guidelines.
The court's three Republican and three Democratic justices ruled that the new maps are constitutional, even if they do take political considerations into account, and can take effect for Pennsylvania's 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts beginning with the 2014 elections.
In its decision, the court effectively forced the maps' architects to reduce the number of counties and municipalities that are split among legislative districts, although this map allows a slightly larger deviation in population between districts than the plan the court rejected last year.
In general, a handful of new districts will appear in areas with relatively fast-growing populations while the maps take pains to keep in place existing district lines and protect the Legislature's Republican control. Two Democratic senators also likely to face difficult re-election challenges.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille said in the 59-page opinion that the court's review of the maps "discloses no overt instances of bizarrely shaped districts" that would confirm allegations that the maps' architects drew the boundaries in a political exercise designed to group certain voter blocs and maximize a partisan outcome.
The court's action came after it had ruled 4-to-3 last year to reject the maps drawn by the five-member commission of top lawmakers — two Democrats and two Republicans — and a former judge, who is a Republican appointed by the Supreme Court.
In rejecting the Legislative Reapportionment Commission's original plans in 2012, it agreed with challengers that political considerations had unduly split municipalities and produced strangely shaped districts. As a result, last year's legislative elections were based on maps drawn in 2001.
Many of those who successfully challenged those maps lodged the same complaints about the redrawn maps. But the reapportionment commission's lawyers argued that they had met the court's standards because they reduced the number of split counties and municipalities and created districts with more compact shapes.
The architect of the Senate map, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said the difference this time was that the map was drawn to meet tougher standards laid out last year by the Supreme Court. The rejected map had been drawn to meet standards of past decades that the court subsequently threw out with its decision last year, he said.
The Senate's Democratic leader, Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the map is "partisan and only serves narrow, partisan political interests."
Still, political considerations are not forbidden in drawing district maps, the court ruled.
"These 'political' factors can operate at will — so long as they do not do violence to the constitutional restraints regarding population equality, contiguity, compactness and respect for the integrity of political subdivisions," Castille wrote.
The Pennsylvania Constitution requires the districts to be redrawn every decade to account for population shifts and maintain a nearly equal number of residents. The districts also must be as compact and contiguous as possible, and only absolutely necessary divisions should be made to counties or municipalities.
Dividing the state's population by 203 House and 50 Senate districts, the "ideal" size would consist of 62,573 people in each House district, and in the Senate, 259,048. None of the districts deviates more than 4 percent from those targets.
Castille said the court purposely has not established a numerical figure for district population or for how many counties and other governmental subdivisions can be split up because various constitutional requirements and practical needs must be balanced.
"It is not even possible to set a specific standard of deviation in population equality by which to measure, in any realistic sense, whether a subdivision split is necessary in some 'absolute' sense," Castille wrote.
A House plan drawn up cooperatively by Republicans and Democrats moves five seats — to York, Berks, Lehigh, Monroe and Chester counties — and leaves those five representatives, all first elected in the past 13 months, in someone else's district.
In the Senate, the suburban Pittsburgh 40th District seat once held by a jailed former senator, Jane Orie, will move across the state to the fast growing Pocono Mountains region in northeastern Pennsylvania, while big changes are in store for two Democrats, one in the Pittsburgh area and one in the Harrisburg area.
The 38th District seat held by Democrat Jim Ferlo of Pittsburgh will shift to include heavily Republican areas north of the city once represented by Orie and raise the prospect of a tough re-election battle in 2014 for the third-term Democrat with Orie's successor, Sen. Randy Vulakovich.
Meanwhile, central Pennsylvania's 15th District, held by freshmen Democrat Rob Teplitz, will gain heavily Republican Perry County and shed some Democratic-leaning Harrisburg suburbs that Democrats complain will favor a Republican in the 2016 election.