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HARRISBURG — A state House panel narrowly advanced a measure Wednesday aimed at giving the Republican-controlled legislature the power to draw districts for electing appellate court judges in Pennsylvania, a major shift away from the current statewide contests.
The majority party has made overhauling the courts a priority after a slew of unsuccessful litigation involving the administration of the 2020 election as well as the coronavirus pandemic. But critics warn the change is an attempt to exert control over the judiciary branch.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 13-12 in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment, which would affect races for state Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts. If passed by the full House and Senate by Feb. 18, it would be before voters for the May 18 primaries.
Republicans contend electing judges by district will lead to more geographic representation. A majority of the 31 appellate judges are from either Philadelphia or Allegheny County — including four of the seven Supreme Court justices — but those areas make up less than a quarter of the state’s population.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), who introduced the amendment, said judges’ judicial philosophies are influenced in part by their geography, and courts should reflect that geographic diversity.
“Just like we have geographic diversity when we create law and come to consensus based on that multi-voice, we should also have that sort of diversity when those laws are heard on appeal and when our courts are setting precedent for the future,” he said.
Lawmakers would redraw judicial districts every 10 years, as they do for congressional districts. The judicial maps would have to adhere to the same redistricting criteria outlined in the Pennsylvania constitution, which requires lawmakers to draw districts that are roughly equal in population, compact, and contiguous, as well as avoid splitting localities “unless absolutely necessary.”
But opponents of the amendment said it would threaten judges’ ability to render statewide decisions without influence, because they would be beholden to a regional constituency and to lawmakers who could draw them out of a district if they don’t like a judge’s ruling. Lawmakers could also gerrymander the districts to ensure the judges they want are elected.
Only two states — Illinois and Louisiana — elect appellate court judges in partisan districts.
“It’s really an attempt to hold the judiciary accountable and threaten their independence,” said Deborah Gross, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates for judges to be chosen through an independent merit selection process.
Republicans for months have accused the majority-Democrat state Supreme Court of overstepping its constitutional role, after the party lost several significant election cases.
In 2018, after the high court struck down a congressional map that justices said was gerrymandered to give Republicans an unfair political advantage, several GOP lawmakers called for Democrats on the bench to be impeached. A Republican state lawmaker again called for Justice David Wecht, a Democrat, to be impeached in October in response to the court’s ruling on several election-related cases, and its upholding of Wolf’s emergency COVID-19 declaration.
Rep. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery), the committee’s minority chair, said groups like Fair Districts PA, the Pennsylvania Law Association, and other legal organizations are concerned “about attacking [the courts’ judicial] independence because of decisions that have been made regarding congressional redistricting, regarding the governor’s public health mitigation efforts, regarding decisions based on this most recent election.”
Diamond first introduced the amendment in 2019, but the concept of letting lawmakers draw districts for judges has been considered periodically since at least 1989, when Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s father, former Republican Sen. Doyle Corman, introduced a similar amendment.
Unlike a bill, constitutional amendments don’t go to the governor for approval or veto. Instead, they have to pass the legislature twice in consecutive sessions before going to voters for consideration.
In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf called the proposed amendment “another effort by Harrisburg Republicans to prevent the will of the people from being heard by stopping all Pennsylvanians from having a voice in selecting judges for the highest courts in the state.”
“This hyper-partisanship from Harrisburg Republicans has to stop,” he said.
This story will be updated.