Fair Judicial Districts

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

It is interesting that the same coalition of Democratic activists and mainstream media types who have been fighting for so-called “fair” congressional districts have lined up in opposition to a true reform that would bring electoral balance to Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.

Senate Republicans have advanced a plan that would change the state’s current system of electing justices and judges of the state’s supreme, superior and commonwealth courts to a by-district system.  This would ensure all regions of the state have equal representation in the judicial branch of government.

At present all members of the three appellate courts hail from just 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.  Given the low profile nature of such races, populous Allegheny County and Philadelphia send a disproportionate number of jurists to those benches.

The idea of establishing judicial districts, similar to congressional and state legislative districts has been floating around the capitol for some time.  The concept is popular at the grassroots.  A recent Keystone Business Climate Survey of the state’s business owners and chief executive officers found 58% favor the by-district election of appellate court justices and judges.

It is disingenuous for those arguing that voters have somehow been shortchanged by the current method of drawing congressional and legislative district lines to suggest they would not be better represented if appellate court jurists likewise were selected to give voters equal representation.

The mystique that formerly surrounded the judicial branch as being fair and above the partisan squabbling that surrounds the legislative and executive branches has evaporated.  Justices have resigned in scandal.  Common Pleas Court judges have gone off to jail for taking kick-backs.  Most recently the Supreme Court shed any pretense of non-partisanship by re-gerrymandering the state’s congressional districts.

The issue of how redistricting is accomplished was raised here in Penn’s Woods as part of an effort by national Democrats to change the congressional playing field.  Unable to effectively compete for a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives they set about challenging districting maps in key states, including Pennsylvania.

Their plan has been highly successful.  Democrats captured control of the state Supreme Court in 2015 after pouring millions of dollars – mostly from labor unions – into what are typically low profile races.  The GOP was caught napping and partisan control of the high court flipped.  Then, Democrat front groups like Fair Districts PA began agitating for early redistricting.  Suits were filed, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, re-gerrymandered the districts and new congressional maps were put into place.

The next step in their master plan is to change the redistricting process. For decades congressional redistricting was done by the state legislature, with the final product taking the form of a bill that must pass both houses and be signed into law by the governor.  This is what occurred after the 2010 census – at the time with bi-partisan support and Supreme Court approval.

In response to this the state Senate has been considering a plan that would supposedly allow more citizen input into the process.  It all sounds like mom and apple pie, except the goal of the so-called reformers is to capture control of the redistricting that will occur after the upcoming 2020 census.

With the GOP holding a two-thirds majority in the state Senate and an historic high majority in the state House it is clear which party would have the upper hand in the 2021 redistricting process if nothing changes.  That doesn’t fit the Democratic playbook, so the push for changing the process has gained steam.

That the effort is nothing more than naked partisanship was revealed when “reform” proponents ramped up opposition to a plan by GOP senators to put into effect the by-district election of appellate court justices and judges.  Some see it as payback for the Supreme Court’s re-gerrymandering of congressional districts – and it may be – but that doesn’t change the fact it is a very good idea.

In recent months Pennsylvanians have witnessed the raw abuse of power by the judicial branch.  That we should all have equal representation on the statewide courts is a matter of fairness.  But fairness is not what the proponents of re-districting reform are seeking.  They are seeking partisan advantage.

Regardless of how the battle over how district lines are drawn plays out, the effort to change from statewide to by-district election of appellate court justices and judges has merit.  It is time all for Pennsylvanians to have equal representation in the judicial branch of state government.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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