gavel

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee “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,” Spotlight PA reported. The 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.” Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

We’ve opposed the notion of carving up the commonwealth into judicial districts by geography ever since it was proposed by Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument, of Mount Joy, in 2018.

As we wrote in December 2019, “We believe that Pennsylvania’s judges should be selected on merit, rather than by election. Amending the state constitution to create a district-based system of regional elections that are partisan by definition would be moving our state in the wrong direction.”

Republican state lawmakers weren’t happy that the Democratic-majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed out the GOP’s ridiculously gerrymandered map of congressional districts in 2018 and imposed a new one.

They’re even unhappier now, after the state Supreme Court ruled against Republican complaints about the November election and Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic emergency declaration.

This is not judicial reform. It’s payback.

Judicial reform would be choosing state appellate judges by merit. That’s the method that Republican state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, used to champion.

In an op-ed for LNP | LancasterOnline in September 2019, Cutler — not yet the House speaker — wrote that a merit-based system would ensure “what the public already expects: a court free from outside influence, where every court decision is rooted in the law. Merit selection would focus on qualifications, such as legal experience, reputation for ethical behavior, honesty, fairness and good temperament. Judges could no longer be chosen according to their ballot position, campaign fundraising abilities or other irrelevant factors.”

Those irrelevant factors, we believe, include geography.

Unfortunately, Republicans now want a judge’s home region to be a deciding factor because they believe too many state judges hail from the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, where Democrats outnumber Republicans.

In an op-ed last year, Aument insisted that judicial districting legislation was not a Republican power grab.

We remain unconvinced. We agree with the nonpartisan organization Fair Districts PA that this is gerrymandering, just of a different kind. And that it’s lousy government.

“Democracy in Pennsylvania, and America, depends on the division of government into three branches, each equal and independent. This separation of powers protects us against tyranny,” Fair Districts PA states on its website. “The proposed constitutional amendment would upset the separation of powers, tipping the balance in favor of the legislative branch.”

State Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon County is the prime sponsor of the legislation. He wants more geographic diversity on the statewide bench because — according to WHYY, the public radio station in Philadelphia — Diamond believes issues such as gun rights would be assessed differently by judges from rural parts of the state.

But state Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican from Montgomery County who voted against the measure, said, “The law shouldn’t change based on what county you’re from.”

That is precisely right.

As Spotlight PA reported, “Lawmakers would redraw judicial districts every 10 years, as they do for congressional districts,” and they would need to follow the same criteria laid out in the Pennsylvania constitution. The districts would need to be roughly equal in population, compact and contiguous, and municipalities only could be split if “absolutely necessary.”

We’ve seen how well that’s worked out in the drawing of congressional districts.

Opponents of the proposed 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,” Spotlight PA noted. “Lawmakers could also gerrymander the districts to ensure the judges they want are elected.”

Just two states — Illinois and Louisiana — elect appellate court judges in partisan districts, Spotlight PA pointed out. There’s a lesson in that.

Deborah Gross, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates — as we do — for judges to be chosen through an independent merit selection process, told Spotlight PA that the proposed amendment is an attempt to “threaten” the independence of judges.

Giving the General Assembly the power to establish judicial districts would be a terrible mistake. As we’ve written before, politics already play far too large a role in choosing our judges. Diamond’s proposed constitutional amendment would lead to an even stronger role for politics.

Let’s consider the driving force behind this plan, too.

Russ Diamond has been an outspoken opponent of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 384,000 Americans. We lambasted him last August for not only denying the science that shows masks to be an essential and effective tool in limiting COVID-19’s spread, but for cruelly seeking to humiliate state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender, by parodying a statement she’d written.

To state it plainly, Diamond is the last person whose judgment we should trust, especially on something as dramatic as an overhaul of statewide judicial elections.

Bottom line: We shouldn’t be electing judges at all. Devoting a constitutional amendment to judicial districting — rather than to genuine judicial reform — would further sink Pennsylvania, and its judges, into the muck of partisan politics.

As Cutler wrote in these pages in 2019: “In an age in which partisan politics dominate the headlines, the courts should work beyond those divisions, and getting politics out of the courts is not a party-line issue. Merit selection transcends party lines and geographical divides and pursues just one, clear goal: placing the most qualified and competent jurists in the courtroom.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Hope for abuse survivors

The state House Judiciary Committee got one thing right Wednesday: It overwhelmingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a two-year retroactive window in which adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse could sue their abusers in civil court.

This is one constitutional amendment that we hope Pennsylvania’s voters will get to approve. It is long past time for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for whom the civil statute of limitation expired, to have their days in court. To seek justice. To hold their abusers, and those who enabled their abuse, to account.

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