Researched and Authored by James Aleo
There is a stealth movement going on now in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by Republicans to radically change the way voters elect the state Supreme Court Justices and the judges of the Superior and Commonwealth Courts. The current, long standing method is for these judges to be elected in state-wide elections. Republicans in the House, however, are busy working to change the electoral process by circulating a bill to establish seven geographical judicial districts from which the justices and judges would be elected. Lately, judicial elections have benefited Democratic judicial candidates especially on the Supreme Court where Democratic judges outnumber their Republican counterparts by a 5-2 margin. This should come as no great surprise since registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by a margin of nearly 850,000 in the state. We are a Democratic majority state. The motivation to change the election method almost certainly is to gain a permanent Republican majority on the Supreme Court and the Superior and Commonwealth courts. How could they accomplish this ? The seven districts would be drawn up by the state legislature, very likely in a gerrymandered manner that could give us four majority Republican districts and three with Democratic majorities.
House Bill 196 was passed by the Judiciary Committee on April 30, 2019 by a vote of 14 – 11, with the support of 14 of the 15 Republicans on the committee. All ten Democrats and one Republican voted against it. Under this bill seven judicial districts would be drawn up by the General Assembly (the Legislature) with the major stipulations being that districts are to be as nearly equal in population as possible and that no municipal subdivisions are to be divided unless absolutely necessary. As for the division of Democrats and Republicans within each district, that would be up to the district map makers in the Republican controlled Legislature, who have a long and rich history of creating gerrymandered state and congressional districts that favor Republicans. Once the bills are approved in both the House and the Senate in two legislative sessions, a voter referendum is created and put on the ballot, most likely in the November 2020 election. The Governor cannot veto these bills – they go directly from the Legislature to the ballot box.
You might wonder, does the political affiliation of the justices and judges make a difference. In fact it does much of the time. Issues like abortion, education funding, labor laws, etc. can result in different judicial decisions depending on the underlying ideology of the individual justice. This is why the Republicans are attempting to change the process with their bill. So what can we do if these bills pass both houses in two successive sessions of the Legislature by 2020 ? All of the forces that will tend to lose under a Republican majority Supreme Court (women, labor, consumers and others) need to mobilize a “full court press” against it and call it for what it is – namely gerrymandering the Supreme Court – in order to have a majority of voters vote it down. If Democrats lose on this issue, big business and the religious right win and the rest of us lose for many years to come.