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How Pa.'s judicial races could become a national outlier


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Tom Lisi
January 28, 2021
Judicial districts, aggressive police, child abuse, relief package, Catholic real estate, Nellie Bly, and a pointy fish. It's Thursday. 

There are only two states in the nation that elect appellate judges in partisan voting districts, a 50-state review conducted by Spotlight PA and Votebeat has found, and Pennsylvania may become the third.

Illinois and Louisiana already have setups similar to a plan championed by Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), a far-right member of the state legislature. Diamond's proposal would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution and could be on the ballot in May.

Experts said similar systems increased partisan campaign fights and gave special interests and dark money groups more of a foothold to affect the outcome of races. In Illinois, for example, a judge's campaign was backed by State Farm as the insurance company was trying to get a billion-dollar verdict overturned. 

THE CONTEXT: When appellate judges are elected in partisan districts instead of by voters statewide, they represent smaller areas that are more politically homogeneous.

Republicans who support the amendment contend that electing judges by district will lead to more geographic representation. Rural voters are not adequately represented on the bench, they say, because a majority of the 31 appellate judges hail from Democrat-heavy Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

Jane Cutler Greenspan, a retired Democratic Supreme Court justice from Philadelphia, said she represented the entire state during her time on the bench, not just the city. But if judges are elected by only a small group of voters? “You’ll have justices not considering other districts," she said.


"I happen to have been a doctor for 23 years, longer than some of these kids have been living, but I need these white kids to teach me how to do it?”

—Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, recounting how a Philadelphia official suggested she partner with a now-troubled start-up to administer vaccines
VACCINE UPDATE: Gov. Tom Wolf vowed to improve the state's distribution plan, citing its middling vaccination rate so far compared to other states. Stay updated with our COVID-19 vaccine provider map and easy county-by-county provider listing.
POST IT: A wintery stream in Bullfrog Valley Park. Thanks for another one, Bob N.! Send us your hidden gems use the hashtag #PAGems, or tag us on Instagram at @spotlightpennsylvania.
AGGRESSIVE RESPONSE: An independent commission called the police response to civil unrest in Philadelphia over the summer the most aggressive since 1985, when police bombed a residential neighborhood, WHYY News reports. The commission also found that Mayor Jim Kenney deferred the decision to use tear gas on protestors to the police commissioner.

CHILD ABUSE: Prosecutors have charged 20 staffers in connection with alleged physical abuse of 18 different children at Devereux’s three residential campuses in Chester County, according to an Inquirer review of court records. Leaders at the health organization would not answer specific questions, but said in a statement the incidents were "heartbreaking and unacceptable."
SOME RELIEF: Pennsylvania’s state Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation to distribute just over $900 million to aid schools and hospitality-related businesses hit hard by the coronavirus, as well as people struggling to pay rent or utility bills, the Associated Press reports. Most of the money is the state's share of a stimulus package approved by Congress in December. 

DIOCESE INDEBTED: The Allentown Catholic Diocese has sold 171 acres of land for about $11 million to pay off loans for a compensation fund for victims of clergy sexual abuse, the Morning Call reports. In past years, the Diocese has moved valuable land in the area into various trusts.

PRE-TRUMP NOSTALGIA: Which Republican Party will come forward in statewide races next year? Politico contrasts Pennsylvania's history of moderate Republican leaders with a new crop of lawmakers that continue to embrace former President Donald Trump before and after his efforts to thwart the November election results. 
SMALL BIZ GODSEND: The 167-year-old Merchants Fund has been able to fill gaps to support minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses in Philadelphia during the pandemic, when government grants have been out of reach.

LIFE OF BLY: The Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh will present an honorary membership next week to investigative journalism pioneer Nellie Bly in an event with the Senator John Heinz History Center. Bly got her start in Pittsburgh, before she famously went undercover in the 1880s and exposed inhumane treatment of patients at a then-called insane asylum in New York.

MYSTERY SOLVED: Locals found it curious when Dominick's Diner underwent a major remodel in the middle of the pandemic. Well, the diner will be among the Erie businesses featured in the Discovery Channel show "Undercover Billionaire: Comeback City," which was scheduled to air Wednesday night.

POINTIEST CATCH: The six-foot, 150-pound paddlefish caught in Tennessee last weekend could be the product of a reintroduction effort by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission that ended a decade ago. The funky-looking, 150 million-year-old species is native to Pennsylvania and rare.

RETURN OF THE PEEP: Peeps are back! Confession: I'm not a fan, but I'm still happy for all the peep lovers out there. The Bethlehem-based candy maker Just Born got production going in time for the treats to hit the market before Easter. I will also let others try out the new "Hot Tamales" flavor before me.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Astronomer 

Congrats to our daily winners: Jessica K., Craig W., Ron P., Neal W., Jill G., William W., Becky C., Bill P., Bill C., Deb N., George S., Heidi B., Sandra G., Kim C., Susan D., John C., Dianne K., Carol D., David W., and Jill A-S.
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