A panel of Commonwealth Court judges ruled Friday that special elections for several vacancies in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives could proceed as ordered by the chamber’s top Democrat, rejecting a challenge from her Republican counterpart.
Voters will officially head to the polls Feb. 7 to select legislators for the three vacant districts, which will return the 203-seat state House to its full complement. The elections are likely to decide which party controls the chamber for the long haul. A bipartisan coalition of legislators elected Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, as a compromise candidate for speaker last week, even as Republicans currently have a two-seat majority, potentially heading off concerns that a Republican speaker could have helped push several far-reaching constitutional amendments through the chamber.
The districts are all located in heavily Democratic parts of Allegheny County. The 32nd District, largely in Penn Hills, had been represented by the late Anthony DeLuca; the 34th District, centered on Braddock and other towns just east of Pittsburgh, was formerly represented by now-U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; and the 35th District, based in McKeesport and the Mon Valley, was last held by Lt. Gov.-elect Austin Davis.
Lawyers from those involved in the case — Democratic leader Joanna McClinton, Republican leader Bryan Cutler, the Pennsylvania Department of State, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and the Allegheny County Board of Elections — argued the case Wednesday before judges Renée Cohn Jubelirer, Michael Wojcik and Lori Dumas. The Democratic and Republican leaders had both claimed the authority to schedule the elections, creating competing orders.
Wojcik wrote in a Friday order that Cutler did not prove he was entitled to emergency relief from the court, and also that his lawsuit raises “nonjusticiable political questions,” on which it would be improper for the court to weigh in. He said these questions include ruling on which party has a majority in the state House and also who in the state House had the authority in December to act as majority leader and schedule the elections.
The judge’s order added that a full opinion from the court explaining its decision will soon be released.
Nicole Reigelman, a spokesperson for the House Democrats, said in a statement that “today’s decision is good news for the nearly 200,000 Allegheny County residents currently without representation in the state House.”
But Cutler, the Republican leader, said in a statement that the court “decided to ignore basic math and prior law” in its ruling. It was not immediately clear whether Republicans planned to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Cutler originally signed paperwork last November setting the 32nd District’s special election for Feb. 7 — there was only one vacancy at the time, following DeLuca’s death after a battle with lymphoma — but the secretary of state’s office later blocked his writ of election on technical grounds. At the time, Cutler was still serving as speaker of the House.
Following resignations from Lee and Davis in mid-December, and given that Cutler’s term as speaker had expired a few days earlier, Democratic leader McClinton moved to hold all three elections together on Feb. 7. She said her party winning 102 seats on Election Day to Republicans’ 101 made her the chamber’s majority leader, granting her the power to issue the election orders.
Cutler responded with a lawsuit challenging McClinton before reissuing an order for the 32nd District to be filled Feb. 7, and combining elections for the 34 and 35th districts with the upcoming May primary — the latest possible date for them to be held. He has argued that Democrats moved down from 102 seats to 99, thus not being in the majority, following DeLuca’s death and the resignations of Lee and Davis.
Rozzi jumped into the legal fray last week and issued his own paperwork to fill the vacancies, though it was unclear whether they carried any legal weight, and picked the same date selected by Democratic leader McClinton.
Lawyers from all sides ended up filing paperwork late last month to let the Feb. 7 date stand for the 32nd District. Cohn Jubelirer signed off last week on the agreement.
Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs told the Union Progress earlier this month that election workers were continuing preparations for the three special elections, even amid the legal uncertainty. She said the county would be prepared if they were all to take place Feb. 7.