This week the judicial district bill, House Bill 38, took a step closer to final passage.
PA House committees held votes on six different potential constitutional amendments. HB 38 was one. None of those committees held public hearings. None invited expert testimony or public comment.
The House Judiciary Committee met to vote on House Bill 38—the reintroduction of HB 196—on Wednesday, January 13, 2021, at 10 am. That meeting was announced less than 24 hours before. According to House rules, amendments must be filed 24 hours before the meeting, but the late announcement made that impossible.
The minority committee chair, Rep. Briggs, noted the lack of adequate notice. He also noted that there have been no hearings on the bill, despite the impact it would have on PA’s constitutional checks and balances. In light of that, he asked for a delay so a hearing could be held and amendments could be filed. That request was voted down. Legislators from both parties then raised important questions, offered substantive opposition and questioned the rationale and potential implications of the proposed amendment. The strongest argument offered in support was by bill sponsor Russ Diamond, who repeatedly asserted that too many judges are from PA’s two most populous counties and this bill would improve regional balance.
Statements of opposition included concern for judicial independence, appropriate checks and balances, danger of judicial gerrymandering, questions about constitutionality of the measure and definitions of diversity. Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican attorney from Montgomery County, expressed concern about the impact of the bill on judicial independence. Rep. Natalie Mihalek, a Republican attorney from Allegheny County, suggested HB 38 further cements partisanship at a time when we need to move in the opposite direction.
The vote was close: 13 Yes, 12 NO, with 13 Republicans voting yes, all 10 Democrats voting no, along with two Republican representatives with legal backgrounds.
Next stop for the bill: the full House floor, then it would need a vote in the Senate committee, then full Senate vote. If the goal is to put the bill on the ballot for the May 18 primary, the deadline for those votes is February 17.
For more detail on the six amendments, including HB 38: Pa. House GOP pushes measure to restrict Wolf emergency response, remake judiciary
For more about procedure, rules and the vote on HB 38: Angered by Pa. Supreme Court rulings, GOP moves to exert more control over judiciary branch
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Watch the full committee meeting below or click here. Discussion of HB 38 begins at 25:00 and is about 45 minutes long.