HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania court ruled Friday that special elections to fill three vacancies in Democratic-leaning state House districts will be held together next month, with partisan control of the chamber at stake.
A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel sided with the House’s Democratic floor leader, Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, who had moved to fill all three Allegheny County seats together on Feb. 7.
The decision was a loss for Rep. Bryan Cutler, the Lancaster Republican who heads up his caucus in the House, and whose lawsuit sought to delay two of the special elections until the May primary.
The order signed by Democratic Judge Michael Wojcik, which did not come with an opinion fully detailing its reasoning, said Cutler did not prove he has a clear right to what he was seeking or that the injunction he wanted was in the public interest.
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Wojcik wrote that he agreed with McClinton’s argument that Cutler was asking the court to take up issues that are not appropriate for the courts.
The judge said Cutler sought rulings on “nonjusticiable political questions regarding which party in the House of Representatives has the majority and, concomitantly, who in the House of Representatives has authority to act as Majority Leader” and issue writs of election in the interim period between the end of the last two-year legislative session on Nov. 30 and the start of the current session earlier this month.
McClinton’s press secretary issued a statement calling the decision “good news for the nearly 200,000 Allegheny County residents currently without representation in the state House.”
“Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court today decided to ignore basic math and prior law in ordering all three of these elections be held together on Feb. 7,” said Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler. “Instead of resolving a dispute where the answer was self-evident based on the numbers, the court took the path of least resistance and thereby weakened the foundations of our republic and faith in the rule of law.
Democrats won 102 seats in the November election, but one of their reelected incumbents died of cancer in October and two others resigned in December because they were also elected to higher offices.
In an argument session this week, Allegheny County officials told the judges that preparations were well underway to conduct the three special elections on Feb. 7, with ballots ready to be printed and most polling places and elections workers in place.
Cutler had previously consented to fill the late Rep. Tony DeLuca’s seat on Feb. 7, but wanted to wait several months to hold special elections for districts most recently represented by former Rep. Austin Davis, who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor next week, and by now freshman U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.
The three vacancies have left Republicans with a temporary 101-99 majority, but the GOP may lose a member later this month. Republican state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver of Northumberland County hopes to win a state Senate special election and fill a seat held most recently by John Gordner, a Republican who resigned mid-term to become a Senate lawyer.
The narrow partisan breakdown in the House led members last week to elect Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, as a self-styled independent speaker, on the strength of all Democratic votes and 16 Republicans.
Rozzi announced Thursday the makeup of a group of six state representatives, three from each party, who will advise him on potential rules for the 2023-24 session. The Speaker’s Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward will seek “a bipartisan agreement to end gridlock in the House,” Rozzi’s office said in announcing it will begin work Tuesday.