The new speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives jumped into the legal battle on when two vacant seats will be filled, issuing his own paperwork to set special election dates to unclear effect just hours after he was sworn into the top job.

Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, announced from the state House floor late Tuesday night that he had signed orders to hold special elections Feb. 7 for the 34th District, centered on Braddock and other towns just east of Pittsburgh, formerly represented by now-U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; and the 35th District, based in McKeesport and the Mon Valley, last held by Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis.

Orders to fill the vacancies, known formally as writs of election, had already been issued in December by Democratic and Republican leaders who have both claimed the authority to schedule the elections. The competing orders are currently the subject of a lawsuit pending in Commonwealth Court, which has involved lawyers for the Democratic and Republican leaders, Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Pennsylvania secretary of state and Allegheny County Board of Elections.

Democratic leader Joanna McClinton originally moved in December to hold all the elections on Feb. 7, but Republican leader Bryan Cutler responded with a lawsuit challenging McClinton and issued his own order for the 34 and 35th districts to be filled as part of the upcoming May primary — the latest possible date.

The open seats — all in Allegheny County and heavily Democratic — are likely to decide which party controls the 203-seat state House for the long haul. Rozzi was elected by his colleagues Tuesday as a compromise candidate for speaker, even as House Republicans have a 101-99 majority, potentially heading off concerns that a Republican speaker could have helped push several far-reaching constitutional amendments through the chamber.

It is unclear what effect Rozzi’s election orders will have both on the lawsuit, which remains pending and scheduled to again be before the court next Wednesday, and on when the elections are actually held. State law requires special election orders to be issued within 10 days of a vacancy, meaning they needed to have been sent on or before Dec. 17 for the 34th and 35th districts — a timetable met by McClinton and Cutler, but not Rozzi.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which processes orders for special elections, told the Union Progress in a statement that it received Rozzi’s orders Wednesday and declined to comment further. The department has said in past legal filings that it is following the first orders received — those of McClinton, setting the elections for Feb. 7 — unless directed otherwise by the courts.

Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia election lawyer who regularly works with Democrats, told the Union Progress that Rozzi’s election orders help “ratify” those of McClinton, no matter whether his are ultimately found to be “independently valid.”

“If the question is what does the presiding officer of the chamber want, there’s no question who the presiding officer of the House is now,” he said. “That’s who gets to make this call, and so I think his supporting the existing dates is something that the court should carefully consider.”

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said “nothing that happened last night impacts the question” of whether the election orders issued by Democratic leader McClinton are valid.

“We filed a lawsuit over those writs and are still in the process of litigating the issue in Commonwealth Court,” he said.

Another vacancy had also been part of the legal fray, but lawyers from all sides filed paperwork late last month to let a Feb. 7 election date stand for the 32nd District, also based in Allegheny County. The date had at one point been authorized once by Democratic leader McClinton and twice by Republican leader Cutler. Renee Cohn Jubelirer, the president judge of Commonwealth Court, signed off Tuesday on the agreement.

Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs said Tuesday that election workers are continuing preparations for the three special elections, even as two of them still need confirmed dates. She said the county would be prepared if they were all to take place Feb. 7.

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at

Jon Moss

Jon, a copy editor and reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and working as a co-editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Reach him at