Instead of electing judges and justices statewide, Pennsylvania House Bill 196 proposes to amend the state constitution to create judicial districts to elect them regionally. This reform will empower individual voters over special interests, ensure fair and proportionate representation, recognize the value of geographic diversity, and increase election integrity and government accountability.
Based on the data, the current complement of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts clearly indicates that the makeup is severely disproportionate, as more than half of the members of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Commonwealth Court are from only two of the commonwealth’s 67 counties, which represent only 21% of the state’s population. Four of the seven state Supreme Court justices are from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, and, taken together, only 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are home to an appellate court judge.
We must do far more to ensure greater geographic diversity and fairness.
The experiences and perspectives of residents in Lancaster County differ from those experienced by residents in Erie, Susquehanna and certainly Allegheny and Philadelphia counties. These differences should be reflected by the court as judges look through the lens of their personal experiences, judicial philosophy and worldview to fairly apply and interpret the law.
Powerful special interests with business before the courts oppose this effort because they have a vested interest in the outcomes of judicial elections. These groups have invested millions of dollars to determine who is chosen to serve on our state appellate courts, so changing the system to level the playing field would tip the scales against them.
Judicial districts would empower people and serve as a counterbalance to the meddling of special interests. In fact, a regional judicial district model dramatically increases the likelihood that voters will recognize, know or even have the opportunity to interact with and question a judicial candidate. This reform better positions voters to make a more informed decision at the ballot box, rather than forcing them to rely on a statewide mailer or 30-second TV ad purchased with special interest dollars to tell them about unknown statewide candidates.
To be clear, this reform is not an attempt to politicize or gerrymander the courts, nor is it a power grab by the state Legislature or Republicans, as some opponents have claimed. Rather, judicial districts would actually be drawn following the redistricting principles found in our state constitution, and would therefore be consistent with any future constitutional amendments to reform redistricting, such as the effort to establish an independent citizens redistricting commission.
And in the end, it is the people of this state who will ultimately decide what system should be used to elect our judges, because constitutional amendments must be approved by voters. So if this is a power grab, it is a power grab by the people of Pennsylvania, who will be empowered to make their own decisions about how this commonwealth is governed.
I stand with the people over special interests. I support judicial districts to ensure fairness and proportionate representation, level the playing field and account for the voice of each and every Pennsylvanian.
State Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican who resides in Mount Joy, represents the 36th Senate District; he is secretary of the Senate Republican Caucus. Twitter: