Even as the Supreme Court takes more time than expected to decide its part in the constitutional controversy over how voting is to be done this year for the 18 House of Representatives members from Pennsylvania, a federal trial court in Harrisburg, PA, is pondering a complex question of states’ rights that could end the case there without a decision on who wins. The difficulty for the three judges sitting in the state’s capital city arises from the reality that, whenever a lawsuit is started in a federal court, that court has to have the authority to decide it, and there is significant controversy over whether the Harrisburg court has that authority. The controversy is keyed to the most basic understandings about the nature of the Constitution’s division of powers between state and federal courts. For decades, the general understanding has been that only the Supreme Court has the authority to review a state court ruling, and then only when the state court has issued a ruling that involves the federal Constitution. That is a strong gesture toward federalism – respect for states’ rights in limiting national government power.
That arrangement, of course, is one of the reasons that state Republican leaders in Pennsylvania have twice asked the Supreme Court to get involved in the controversy this year on where election district lines are drawn for House of Representatives candidates. The map defining those lines for this year was drawn up by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the GOP leaders are seeking to appeal that decision. In the meantime, they have asked the Justices to stop state officials from using the court-drawn map for House elections in May and November.
But some of the GOP leaders also have now pursued a case in the federal court in Harrisburg. After two GOP legislative leaders lost the case in the state Supreme Court, did the federal Constitution allow other GOP legislative figures and a group of GOP members of the House to go a few blocks away to the federal courthouse and start a new lawsuit there, claiming that the federal Constitution has been violated by the state court?