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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania state lawmakers spent at least $3 million in taxpayer money on outside law firms and experts as they lobbied for their preferred political maps during the recent redistricting cycle, according to invoices obtained by Spotlight PA.
The new districts have the potential to change the balance of power in both Harrisburg and Washington, with one Republican-held congressional seat eliminated and the updated state House map giving Democrats the potential to win back the chamber.
Considering the high stakes, it’s not surprising that legal action played a major role during the process.
The congressional map was picked by the state Supreme Court as part of a lawsuit brought by a group of citizens concerned that Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature would fail to agree on a plan by the May primary. The legislative maps, meanwhile, were the subject of five lawsuits, including one brought by state House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) that is still ongoing.
To understand how much money Democrats and Republicans spent on efforts to convince Pennsylvanians and the court system to support their maps, Spotlight PA asked the four caucuses for invoices from January 2021 to June 2022. They returned bills for work beginning in May 2021 and ending in April 2022.
The invoices show leadership employed eight different law firms throughout the process. Some details–like descriptions of legal strategy and personal finance information–were redacted due to attorney-client privilege and limits in Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.
According to the invoices, Democrats in the state House and Senate paid six private law firms $1.4 million beginning in June 2021.
Most of that sum was spent by Democrats in the lower chamber in support of work on the legislature’s own maps, which are drawn by a five-member panel of top legislative leaders and an independent chair.
Lawyers prepared the caucus’ legal strategies, attended Legislative Reapportionment Commission meetings and met with a Democratic caucus team charged with redistricting matters.
State House and Senate Republicans paid two private law firms more than $1.6 million. Most of those costs were incurred by the state House GOP caucus, which spent just under $400,000 on lawyers for legislative redistricting. House Republicans spent another $450,000 on congressional redistricting matters.
Pennsylvania’s congressional map is drafted and voted on by the General Assembly and must be approved by the state’s governor. Wolf in January vetoed a plan sent to him by Republicans, leading the state Supreme Court to take over.
Each caucus proposed its own congressional map, as did several citizen groups. The high court ultimately chose a map submitted by the group that brought the original lawsuit.
The high cost of expertise
Redistricting lawyers for all four caucuses paid “professional experts” $527,980 for their testimony, according to invoices. They gave testimony at public hearings and in court, created “expert reports” to submit to courts and in some cases drew maps.
The hourly rates for the eight experts ranged from $195 to $350 an hour. Many also provided expertise in redistricting cases in New York, Ohio and Maryland.
The highest-paid expert, according to invoices–Brigham Young University political science professor Michael Barber–made nearly $90,000 from his work over the course of six months, consulting with Republicans in the General Assembly. House Republicans did not list an hourly rate for Barber, but court records show he was paid $500 an hour for his expert testimony in New York.
Matt A. Barreto, professor of political science and Chicana/o and Central American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, was the highest paid expert hired by Democrats, receiving $65,000 for his work. On behalf of House Democrats he testified at public hearings on legislative redistricting, wrote reports analyzing the effects of the legislative maps on communities of color and reviewed the research of experts hired by House Republicans.
While active during the public hearings that preceded the adoption of the new political maps, the experts were perhaps even more crucial during the court proceedings that followed.
The Pennsylvania Constitution spells out four traditional redistricting criteria–including that districts be compact and made up of roughly equal population–but judges in recent years have also embraced new metrics to measure whether a map has been drawn to unfairly benefit one political party.
Because of advancements in technology, the latter practice, known as gerrymandering, has become increasingly easy for academics to pull off while still meeting traditional redistricting criteria. Tools to measure partisan fairness are now standard practice, and experts for the four caucuses all presented their own analyses to the court.
The state Supreme Court chose a congressional map drawn by Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University, who kept 90 percent of residents in the same district. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Max Baer wrote that while there is no perfect map, Rodden’s “best abides” by traditional redistricting criteria while also being “superior or comparable to the other maps in regard to partisan fairness.”
Justin Villere, executive director of Draw the Lines PA–a project of the good-government group Committee of Seventy that seeks to engage people in the redistricting process–said using expert witnesses in court was a useful tool, as the cases often became a “battle of the experts.”
But Villere argued that experts used in the court cases–professors of political science, geography and demography–often didn’t understand the intricacies of the state. His organization compiled input from more than 7,200 residents that he says created a map that is richer and more representative of the nuances in Pennsylvania.
Exactly what qualifies as a redistricting “expert” was also loosely defined during this year’s process.
Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA–a nonpartisan organization that advocates for an independent redistricting process–said some of the experts used by the GOP in this redistricting cycle didn’t have close connections to an academic study of redistricting.
“There’s just a handful of experts who have spoken on behalf of what I would call Republican gerrymanders that are the same folks,” said Kuniholm. “It just doesn’t seem like there are many academics who are eager to put their name to supporting some of these plans and they’re being well compensated to do it.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars may seem like a lot of money to spend on experts, but Villere noted that it’s much cheaper for lawmakers to spend money trying to put in place maps that are favorable to their political party than to have candidates run in competitive elections.
“Given what’s at stake in the redistricting process and the partisan interest, everyone wanted to throw everything into the breach,” he said. “If [experts] help persuade the court, then that’s a lot cheaper than an election.”
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