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Chief Justice Max Baer was at the center of some of Pennsylvania’s biggest election cases

Baer was instrumental in deciding a number of key voting rights and election cases that came before the high court.

  • Sam Dunklau
In this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 photo Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer attends a ceremony at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

In this Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 photo Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer attends a ceremony at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer authored the single most consequential ruling in the run-up to the 2020 election, one that continues to reverberate throughout the state’s political world today. He also helped reverse a decades-long trend of partisan gerrymandering by the state’s political mapmakers. 

The state Supreme Court hosted a memorial service for Baer, who died this past weekend at the age of 74, in Pittsburgh Tuesday. While the justice who was first elected to the High Court in 2003 is being remembered in many ways, his role in those key election cases will not soon be forgotten.

Here’s a summary of both of them: 

Pennsylvania Democratic Party et al. v. Kathy Boockvar, et al. 

This September 2020 case was perhaps the most significant in the lead-up to the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden that year. Its consequences for Pennsylvania’s election system continue to be felt.

Democrats asked the court to decide whether state law allowed things like ballot drop boxes and satellite election offices, both designed to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.

The Wolf Administration also asked the court to extend the submission deadline for mail-in ballots – a measure aimed at making sure mail-in ballots would be counted despite an anticipated slowdown in mail delivery by the U.S. Postal Service.

Baer penned the 4-3 decision that cleared the way for all of those things, pointing to the “unprecedented” events unfolding in late 2020. State law spells out that ballots are due by 8 p.m. on Election Day – but the Pittsburgh justice worried that requirement would be difficult to meet in the midst of a pandemic.

“There is nothing constitutionally infirm about a deadline of 8:00 p.m. on Election Day for the receipt of ballots,” Baer wrote, stressing that the court was deciding whether counties would accidentally disenfranchise voters by enforcing it.

Baer also relied on what’s known as the Free and Equal Elections Clause of the state constitution, which requires leaders to keep “all aspects of the electoral process” as open as possible to allow the largest number of people to vote in a given election. 

The decision drew ire from Trump allies in the wake of the 2020 election. Biden ultimately won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 votes. 

High-profile Republican lawmakers, including GOP candidate for governor Doug Mastriano, have frequently cited the case to support a false conclusion that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Pennsylvania’s Republican congressional delegation pointed to the case when it joined a group of more than 130 in pushing to overturn the 2020 election result – a move that contributed to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Those lawmakers argued the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of election law set the stage for conditions that favored Biden’s campaign. 

Though complaints center around the court’s mail-in ballot deadline extension, only 10,000 ballots arrived after the election – far too few to have influenced the outcome.

State-mandated election audits and experts of both parties have concluded that Pennsylvania’s 2020 election was secure from fraud and that its result was accurate. Even third-party reviews of election materials have turned up no evidence of fraud or malfeasance in the contest. 

2018, League of Women Voters, et al. v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et al.

Baer joined four other Democrats on the state Supreme Court in striking down Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map, though he ultimately disagreed with how the court implemented a replacement map. This case set the stage for the political mapmaking battle that played out in the high court earlier this year.

After the 2010 Census, the Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the boundaries for Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. That re-shuffled map was eventually challenged by the League of Women Voters and others. 

In a landmark decision, the high court ruled that map “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state constitution because it favored the GOP’s candidates in 13 of the state’s 18 districts. Since then, Pennsylvania has lost a congressional district due to sluggish population growth. 

Justices then appointed an advisor to create a new map, which the court controversially adopted ahead of the 2018 midterms. Justices initially gave the state legislature and Gov. Wolf a few weeks to come up with a compromise map, which never materialized. Ultimately, House and Senate Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Democrats, Wolf and then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack each submitted maps independently.

The decision also brought about what the state Supreme Court called a “floor” of criteria for new political boundaries: “compactness, contiguity, minimization of the division of political subdivisions, and maintenance of population equality among congressional districts.” Those factored heavily into the re-drawing of Pennsylvania’s current state House, Senate, and congressional maps earlier this year.

Baer supported the high court’s decision to toss the 2011 map, but disagreed with the push to implement the new map in an election year.

“The Court’s remedy threatens the separation of powers…by failing to allow our sister branches sufficient time to legislate a new congressional districting map,” he wrote in his opinion. “[That] potentially foments unnecessary confusion in the current election cycle.”

Baer argued in a later opinion that state law demanded the court give the legislature and governor more time to deliberate their own map ideas.

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