Pennsylvania former House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Quarryville) this weekend announced he filed a lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania over Representative Joanna McClinton’s (D-Philadelphia) assertion of House majority-leader status.
McClinton has used her title as majority leader to schedule special elections to replace one deceased member and two retired members of the state House of Representatives. State law calls on the House speaker to determine special-election dates for that chamber and vests the House majority leader with that power if the speaker cannot perform that duty.
The question is: Who can rightfully claim to be the House majority leader?
Democrats won 102 out of 203 House seats during November’s elections. The House Democratic Caucus chose McClinton, who theretofore served as House minority leader, as its head officer. On December 7, the Philadelphia-based legislator was sworn in as majority leader.
The problem is that, because state Representative Anthony DeLuca (D-Pittsburgh) was reelected this year despite having died in October, Democrats did not constitute a majority of House members at the time. And their caucus’s membership has actually declined by two since then: Representatives Austin Davis (D-Pittsburgh) and Summer Lee (D-Pittsburgh) resigned form their House seats earlier this month so they could respectively assume the offices of lieutenant governor and congresswoman.
Almost inevitably, Democrats will regain those seats, all of which are in deep-blue districts, once special elections are held. But for the time being, Republicans number 101 members of the state House and Democrats only total 99. This fact, Cutler asserts, prevents McClinton from holding the majority-leader title or performing duties within the special purview of that office until Democrats regain a true majority.
That, Cutler insists, means the Pennsylvania Department of State cannot honor her decision to schedule special elections for DeLuca, Davis and Lee on February 7, 2023. The former speaker is litigating against acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman (D) to block that decision.
That particular dispute may not change when all the special elections take place, insofar as Cutler already issued a writ of election for DeLuca’s seat for the same date before his last term ended and he ceased to be speaker. But denying the Democrats majority status could reduce their power considerably until they win back the three vacant Pittsburgh-based seats.
“Absent 102 living members,” Cutler’s complaint read, “Representative McClinton has no basis to claim the title Majority Leader.”
The former speaker obtained an opinion from the state Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) — the office in charge of writing all legislation at the behest of state lawmakers — stating that the Democrats in fact do not have a majority in the Pennsylvania House.
In response to Cutler’s inquiry as to whether his rival party could claim a majority, LRB director Vincent C. DeLiberato Jr. wrote, “No. While the Democratic Party won a total of 102 elections to the House of Representatives at the 2022 general election, the Democratic Caucus is able to seat only 101 members due to the death of a member-elect, falling short of the 102 members necessary for a majority.”
In the absence of a House speaker, Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler will preside over chamber proceedings on January 3, at which time a speaker election will be held.
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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Bryan Cutler” by Governor Tom Wolf. CC BY 2.0. Photo “Joanna McClinton” by Rep. Joanna McClinton. Background Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by Dough4872. CC BY-SA 4.0.