Ex-Pitt chancellor Nordenberg to chair redistricting panel
HARRISBURG- The panel that will redraw the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts amid public education campaigns to stamp out gerrymandering will be chaired by the University of Pittsburgh’s former chancellor as the tie-breaking fifth member appointed by the state’s high court Monday.
The state Supreme Court announced Mark Nordenberg’s appointment in an order and in a letter to the Legislature’s caucus leaders from the chief justice, Max Baer.
Nordenberg, who also was Pitt’s law school dean, now chairs the university’s Institute of Politics. Nordenberg, 72, stepped down as chancellor in 2014 after 18 years.
With the appointment, Nordenberg effectively will set the agenda for the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission to draw and approve new legislative districts before the 2022 elections to conform with demographic changes identified by the once-a-decade census count.
The court did not explain how it came to appoint Nordenberg. The other members - the Legislature’s caucus leaders - informed the justices on Friday that they could not agree on a chair.
Nordenberg said he has known most of the high court’s justices for a long time through the legal community, and was approached by Baer a week or two ago about serving if legislators could not agree on someone else.
The court has a 5-2 Democratic majority, with four of those Democrats - including Baer - hailing from Pittsburgh.
A registered Democrat, Nordenberg served on the transition team of then-Gov.-elect Tom Wolf in 2014. But Nordenberg said he has no strong partisan affiliations, he has voted for members of both parties and he is “about as close to the middle as you probably could get.”
He said he had already reached out to the other four commissioners to begin discussing the task ahead.
Nordenberg gets the job amid aggressive public education campaigns that aim to root out gerrymandering by raising awareness about how districts must be drawn and helping regular people draw their own district maps using basic online tools.
To keep equal populations, the districts inevitably will have to shift away from regions where the population is stagnant - largely Republican areas in northern and western Pennsylvania - to growing regions of the state, primarily eastern and southern Pennsylvania.
Democrats have criticized the current maps of districts as gerrymandered to favor Republicans, leading to strong Republican majorities in both chambers, despite the fact that statewide voter registration rolls and statewide elections have favored Democrats in the past two decades.
Republicans counter that they win more legislative seats by finding better candidates and running better campaigns. Asked if he thought the maps were gerrymandered, Nordenberg said he had “no opinion on what has been done in the past.”
“My only goal is to work with the other four commissioners to develop maps, this time around, that satisfy the requirements of the constitution,” Nordenberg said.
Nordenberg’s appointment won applause from David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy.
Thornburgh’s good-government group is sponsoring Draw the Lines PA, a civic initiative aimed at educating citizens about drawing boundaries and at ending gerrymandering with the slogan “slay the gerrymander.”
Thornburgh called Nordenberg “somebody who cares deeply about the practice of good governance, a man of great integrity and great judgement. And I know he will take this assignment seriously.”
Under the state constitution, each of the 50 Senate districts and each of the 203 House districts must be compact and contiguous, and as equal in population to each other as “practicable,” with no districts dividing counties, cities or towns unless absolutely necessary.
However, that is not always how districts are drawn, and the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that political considerations are not forbidden in drawing districts.
For the past three decades at least, the state Supreme Court has appointed the chair after the panel’s Democrats and Republicans could not agree.
That fifth member can play the critical role of forging compromise between the two partisan sides or simply selecting one side’s partisan plan over the other’s.
For the last two decades, the commission chair was chosen by a Republican-majority court. In 2015, Democrats won three open seats on the high court, a critical election that marked the court’s shift to a Democratic majority.