By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A panel of three federal judges heard arguments on Friday in the latest attempt by Pennsylvania Republicans to block a court-imposed map of voting districts that could boost Democrats' chances of winning control of the U.S. Congress this year.
Lawyers for the Republicans requested an injunction to stop the implementation of the new map and instead grant the Republican-controlled state legislature two months to come up with congressional districts that the court would find acceptable.
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The state's Supreme Court issued the revised map last month after finding the Republican-controlled legislature had drawn districts to marginalize Democratic voters in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
“We are asking that the legislature be given a fair chance to come up with a map. Maybe two months,” said lawyer Matthew Haverstick, who represents several Republican congressmen.
Under the Republican proposal, the court would recognize the old districts set up in 2011 for the current election cycle. On May 15, Pennsylvania will hold primaries through which parties will pick candidates for the general election in November.
But the federal panel, hearing the case in Harrisburg, the state capital, expressed skepticism over the proposal, with Judge Kent Jordan asking, “How is that not chaos?”
Lawyers for Pennsylvania Democrats argued that the Republican state lawmakers who are plaintiffs in the appeal do not even have legal standing to make a request for an injunction.
“Individual legislators don’t have standing unless they have enough votes to change the legislative outcome,” said Stanton Jones, one of the lawyers who spoke in defense of the new map.
The court was expected to rule quickly given the March 20 deadline for candidates to file to run for Congress.
The panel's decision could prove crucial to Democratic hopes of winning some half-dozen congressional seats in the state, a goal that political analysts believe is achievable.
Democrats must flip 24 seats nationwide in November's midterm elections to win the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives from Republicans.
Since the old Pennsylvania boundaries were instituted before the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans have held 13 of the state's 18 congressional seats despite the state's closely divided electorate.
Republicans have pursued two separate avenues of appeal, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the map while also filing the lawsuit in Harrisburg seeking an injunction to prevent the map from taking effect ahead of May's primary elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected a similar appeal in February, has not yet ruled on the latest petition.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found the old map's bizarrely shaped districts – one of which earned the derisive nickname "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck" – were deliberately drawn to ensure Republicans would hold the advantage.
Several incumbent Republican congressmen are plaintiffs in the Harrisburg lawsuit.
State election officials have asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, arguing that the judges have no jurisdiction over a state court's decision.
(Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)