Pennsylvanians Agree That the Courts Are Not the Place to Make Laws
By Brian Guthrie and Nathan Fox
A recent Federalist Society poll of Pennsylvania voters of varying age, race and political ideology found overwhelming majority opinions on the role of the courts in gun control, health care and same-sex relationships. Seventy-seven percent of Pennsylvanians solidly agreed that judges should apply the law as written and not take into account personal viewpoints and opinions. Moreover, 67% approve of the current electoral method of selecting justices.
In the area of gun control, the majority of voters believe the state legislature is the only government body that should be setting gun laws in the Commonwealth – as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held thirteen years ago in Ortiz v. Commonwealth. Though, interestingly, 66% of poll-respondents stated that they do not keep firearms in their homes. So despite that only 34% of respondents own guns, the majority of Pennsylvanians still recognize gun ownership as an individual right under the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions. And Gun control’s relationship to the courts is increasingly relevant as various states tackle the issue of whether cities and municipalities may enact their own gun laws. But Pennsylvanians find themselves on the side of the United States Supreme Court. Recently, the issue made national headlines in District of Columbia v. Heller where the right to keep and bear arms was held an individual right under the United States Constitution, not to be abridged by the District of Columbia.
Eighty-two percent of Pennsylvanians also believe that frivolous lawsuits and lawsuit abuse is a serious problem in the state; with 51% believing it to be a very serious problem. Predictably then, 61% of Pennsylvanians supported a change in the law allowing damages awarded in lawsuits to be capped. Arguably Texas has found great success in implementing a damages cap on pain and suffering in tort claims. But Pennsylvania’s problem retaining doctors has grown so bad that some joke its largest exports are college graduates and medical professionals. Despite having top flight medical schools and hospitals, doctors are fleeing the state’s high medical malpractice premiums and what some would consider excessive jury verdicts right here in Philadelphia. These poll numbers demonstrate Pennsylvanians’ common sense understanding of the relationship between lawsuit abuse, a growing shortage of medical professionals and the need for tort reform.
Pennsylvanians, again, overwhelmingly agree that voters should determine whether same-sex marriage is permissible. Seventy-eight percent of Pennsylvanians believe that Pennsylvania’s electorate should define marriage in the Commonwealth. And, predictably, 68% agree that if an amendment were passed defining marriage, it would be inappropriate for the state Supreme Court to step in an overturn an amendment passed by the legislature and the voters of the state. Same-sex marriage is a hot-button issue in which state courts have variously intervened in California, Vermont, Massachusetts and Iowa. And, while some state courts have legalized same-sex marriage outside the legislative process, Pennsylvanians are staunchly opposed to such judicial action. Nearly 80% want the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment on the status of same-sex marriage, making it clear they won’t likely tolerate the elected judiciary intruding upon in the legislative constitutional amendment process.
Poll data clearly demonstrates that Pennsylvanians strongly favor electing their own judges and that those judges apply law as written – a premise applying cleanly across the issues of gun control, medical malpractice and same-sex marriage. Pennsylvanians also want judges to refrain from encouraging frivolous law suits and from interjecting themselves into issues surrounding same-sex marriage. With Pennsylvanians so clear about preferring judges who do not make policy from the bench, candidates campaigning for November election should take note.
Brian Guthrie has been an attorney in Philadelphia for 36 years; Nathan Fox is an attorney in the Philadelphia suburbs and a life-long Bucks County resident.