The PA GOP is attempting to end judicial independence

Zach Murphy, Staff Writer

Republican lawmakers recently introduced a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly (House Bill 38) that would amend the state constitution to establish “judicial districts” for the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts, the three highest courts in the state. Under the current system, Pennsylvania residents elect these judges at a statewide level, i.e. regardless of where either the judge or citizen physically resides in the state. The Republican argument is based on the notion that the judiciary must better represent the geographical diversity of the state. However, this argument is misleading, and is a shameless attempt to curb democracy to favor the Republican Party’s power in the judiciary.

The argument in favor of H.B. 38 implies that state laws change by location; in other words, it effectively claims that state Supreme Court justices would need to reflect geographic diversity, akin to stating Philadelphia, Union, Somerset and Allegheny counties all follow different legal systems and codes at the state level. While local laws do exist, this situation does not concern local laws — it has implications for statewide legal decisions that will affect every citizen, regardless of residency. Creating “judicial districts” as the bill prescribes will give low-population, Republican-leaning counties more legislative power over populous, concentrated, Democratic-leaning ones. Interestingly, the bill itself states that “Unless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward may be divided informing a judicial district.” This means that, unlike political districts, county borders will be respected in the formation of these districts.

The problem with this line of reasoning is it transgresses on the basic principle of the equality of the vote at the state level. The total approximate combined population of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Allegheny counties is 5.2 million people; these counties all lean liberal and Democratic, and represent a significant reason why Pennsylvania is considered a battleground state in national elections. If the seven proposed districts are implemented, roughly 40 percent of our state’s population, residing in these few counties, will have a fairly miniscule say in the composition of the state’s judiciary. Even if the Republicans were to divide the state the proposed districts equally, each justice would be tasked with representing around 1.8 million people and, if county borders are respected, these six counties would have the voting power to pick 2.8 justices. Instead of “districting,” let’s call this what it is — gerrymandering.

The fallout from H.B. 38, if implemented, would be disastrous for Pennsylvania residents. High-population areas such as the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will be limited to selecting a disproportionately low number of judges when compared with their rural, low-density counterparts. This would also mean that the judges would have to appeal to the specific politics of a district rather than the whole state, giving rise to the possibility of judges running on more explicitly political platforms. This would betray the essential feature of judicial practice, its ostensibly non-partisan nature. Judges are supposed to uphold the law and constitution, not interpret it according to the political persuasions of a given region. An increasingly politicized judiciary has long been a problem in the United States, and is not limited to the Republican party. It’s time our lawmakers learn that the courts are not another battleground for political skirmishes and policy debate. If either party wants their politics to reign supreme, then they must gain voters and win elections, not shamelessly limit democracy by hijacking the courts.

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