There is a dangerous move afoot in the General Assembly to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to create regional election districts for state appellate court judges, e.g. Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court.
Supporters of this move claim they want to ensure the geographic diversity of the courts. But this makes no sense.
The judges on appellate courts are not elected to represent regions of the state. Rather, they are responsible for interpreting and applying our laws. In fact, the state Supreme Court is sometimes called upon to be a check on the power of the Legislature.
Pennsylvania, like the majority of those states with an elected judiciary, has traditionally chosen these high-court judges in statewide elections because appellate courts make decisions on issues affecting the entire state. By allowing candidates from all parts of Pennsylvania to run for these positions, the most qualified candidates and those with experience in appellate matters will be elected and retained.
The creation of judicial election districts would give a small number of legislative leaders the power to draw the district boundaries in the same way they draw legislative district lines, that is, behind closed doors. And we all know the result of that exercise: a state with some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.
If this constitutional amendment succeeds, a few legislative leaders will be able to control which high-court judges are elected to the bench and which are retained over time. Judges facing retention elections will need to be concerned about the approval of legislators. Judicial rulings will be influenced by politics and not based solely on the law. The critical balance of powers, so fundamental to our democracy, will be lost.
This proposal, House Bill 196, is likely to come up for a vote in the first two weeks of January, and it must be defeated. Many legislators are unaware of the dangerous game the party leaders are playing. We must urge them to vote “No” on this measure if Pennsylvania is to continue to have an independent judiciary.
More information about judicial gerrymandering can be found at Fair Districts PA.
Jean Weston, Monica Weninger
League of Women Voters of Bucks County
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Free Press.