Judicial Gerrymandering Is Back

Marc Stier |

Republicans who control the Pennsylvania House of Representatives couldn’t find time to raise the minimum wage this week. But they did find time to take revenge on Pennsylvania judges for protecting our rights to vote and to have Congressional districts that are not gerrymandered in their favor.

They did this by passing a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that will change how we elect judges and justices to our appellate courts, including our Supreme Court. Instead of electing them statewide, if this amendment becomes part of our Constitution, we will elect them from districts that, of course, would be drawn by members of the General Assembly.

As we explained in detail in this blog post, this proposed amendment will, in two ways, give the General Assembly far more influence over the courts than is appropriate in a government that respects the separation of powers. By gerrymandering judicial districts and by using the transition process to prevent the current judges from running in retention elections, the General Assembly would be able to influence both the partisan and individual composition of the courts in ways that undermine judicial independence.

That’s one reason to reject the amendment. A second is that given the role judges play in our constitutional government, district election is unnecessary. We elect legislators by district because it is important that regional interests be accounted for in the process of enacting legislation. But there is no regional way to interpret the statutes or Constitution of our Commonwealth.

And third, electing judges in districts can make it more difficult to put the best-qualified judges on the bench. We want appellate courts judges with the legal experience in appellate matters and / or judicial experience to sit on these courts. Men and women with that kind of experience are more likely to be found in the urban, commercial centers of the state. And the record shows that people with such experience from the more rural counties are able to secure places on the appellate courts.

As we explained when this proposal was first introduced in 2018, this amendment taken by our heavily gerrymandered state Senate is one more step in a slow-motion coup by which Republicans seek to change the political rules to give them control over our state government without having to be bothered to win more votes in fair elections. If it becomes part of our Constitution—which requires it to be passed by the Senate by the end of 2020, again by the House and Senate in 2021, and by the voters thereafter—our representative democracy will become even more compromised.

That’s the way Republicans want things—for it is a democracy already compromised by gerrymandering that allows Republicans in Harrisburg to resist the 70% of Pennsylvanians who want to see the minimum wage raised to at least $12 an hour.