Some lawmakers want to pass a constitutional amendment that would effectively gerrymander our courts. This amendment would require PA’s statewide judges to run for election in regional districts drawn by lawmakers.
In the last legislative session, HB 196 passed both the PA House and Senate, quickly. The Legislature has introduced the same bill, now named HB 38. It was voted out of committee on January 13. If HB 38 passes in early to mid February it could go to a vote on the ballot in the May Primary Election.
The Supreme Court of PA, Superior and Commonwealth Courts. These courts are thought of as our “higher” courts. Of the 30 judges currently serving on these courts, 16 are Republicans, 14 are Democrats.
All Pennsylvanians vote in statewide partisan elections to determine which judges sit on these courts.
PA legislators would draw the districts in the same way they draw the congressional district maps. Then these district maps would become bills to be voted on by both houses and if successful would go before the governor for their signature.
Each of the three courts would have their own regions— 7 districts for the Supreme Court, 15 for the Superior Court and 9 for Commonwealth Court. A total of 31 regional districts of various sizes would be created.
The bill is not clear about timing or frequency. As written, it leaves far too much to the discretion of legislators.
Pennsylvania’s judicial district bill would pioneer new lows in partisan gerrymandering. It had little review by legislators, no public hearings, no testimony for or against, and no evidence of public support.
Legislators need to hear from voters. Vote no on judicial regions for our high courts. Vote no on expanding gerrymandering to the courts.
Judges for statewide courts interpret the law for the entire state, not individual regions. Within the judiciary, individual regions are adequately represented by 60 Court of Common Pleas districts with 467 judges, providing the diversity supporters of judicial regions suggest is lacking in the PA court system.
Democracy in Pennsylvania, and America, depends on the division of government into three branches, each equal and independent. This separation of powers protects us against tyranny. The proposed constitutional amendment would upset the separation of powers, tipping the balance in favor of the legislative branch.
Most states, recognizing that judges should represent the law and not political parties, have moved to nonpartisan elections or merit-based selection of judges. They value the accomplishments of judges. This bill seeks to put a judge’s location before their qualifications.
Voting districts would be manipulated to benefit parties, not people.
When asked about motivation, supporters say “we need diversity on the court.” By “diversity,” they mean “regional diversity.” No effort is being made in this bill to provide any other type of diversity. Regional diversity already exists on PA appeals courts, with judges from a broad mix of counties: rural, urban, and suburban. While a majority of jurists are drawn to larger cities in pursuing their careers, their points of origin and education are from all parts of PA as well as other states.
The amendment summary speaks of ‘organizing the Judiciary into representative districts.” This completely misrepresents the role of the judiciary. Judges do not and SHOULD not “represent” districts or voters. Their role is to interpret the law, which must be applied evenly no matter where a judge or petitioner lives.
Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that uses partisan elections to elect higher court judges. If HB 38 passes again and is approved by the voters, PA will join just two other states (Illinois and Louisiana) that select their Supreme Court justices from districts by party. Even the lawmakers of these two states do not allow legislators free hand in regularly redrawing those judicial districts.
Supporters of this bill say “let the voters decide.” That sounds good, but what they want the voters to decide is to give the lawmakers all the power. Once the voters “decide” to give the legislative branch the power to create districts for higher courts, the voters are limited. The separation of power is upset.
If supporters of this bill want to “let the voters decide,” then they should pass legislation voters have repeatedly asked for. Over the past four years, voters have demanded legislation to end gerrymandering of voting districts for legislators. Support for a fair and transparent redistricting process with strict mapping criteria is extensive and bipartisan.
Voters have decided that they want to end gerrymandering, but legislators don’t want to give up that power. Instead, they are trying to gain power. Rather than ending gerrymandering, they are trying to expand it.
FDPA Flyer What’s Wrong with Judicial Districts
FDPA Blog, Unaccountable and Amazingly Tone-deaf