Republicans aim at Pennsylvania’s Democratic majority court
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Out of power in two of three branches of government in Pennsylvania, Republicans who control the state Legislature completed the first step Wednesday to amend the state constitution and potentially undo a Democratic majority on the state’s highest court.
The state Senate voted 26-24 to move the proposed amendment to the next step. The House approved it in December. Every Democrat opposed it in both chambers, with a few moderate Republicans joining them.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, called it a “pure political power grab” that would gerrymander the state’s courts.
Under it, Pennsylvania would end the practice of state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges running for 10-year terms on the bench in statewide elections and, instead, sort those seats into geographical districts where a candidate must live.
Republicans say they are dissatisfied with court decisions.
Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said during floor debate that overhauling the courts are about “fairness for rural parts of the state to get a fair shake” from judges from Philadelphia and Allegheny County.
The drive to create judicial districts, along with calls from Republicans to impeach Democrats on Pennsylvania’s high court, arose in 2018 after the court struck down Republican-drawn congressional districts as unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said the need to overhaul the court has gained urgency with Gov. Tom Wolf’s victories in court over efforts by Republican lawmakers to strip him of the legal authority he has used to manage the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“After all that we have been through these last few months, I’m ever more convinced that we must do all we can to ensure that the voices of the people of this commonwealth are heard and the people have full confidence in our system of government and in our institutions,” Aument said.
Republicans also have worried about how the high court will rule on a major public school funding lawsuit that is expected to make its way there.
One more vote by the Legislature next year would send the matter to voters in a statewide referendum as early as the May 18, 2021, election.
The high court’s 5-2 Democratic majority took over in 2016, succeeding a Republican majority in place since 2002, and could prove durable well past 2030 if left alone.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, accused Republicans of being mad about the 2018 decision throwing out the Republican-drawn congressional map and a two-week-old decision turning away Republican efforts to end Wolf’s pandemic-related disaster declaration.
“We weren’t here 10 years ago when we had a Republican court,” Costa said during floor debate. “Nobody was worried about the decisions that were made, presumably because they were favorable decisions.”
Of the five Democrats on the state Supreme court, one is from Philadelphia and four are from the Pittsburgh area. Changing to judicial districts could shorten the career of more than one Democrat, or force them to move and run in newly drawn districts outside the Democratic bastions of metropolitan Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Those newly drawn districts outside of metropolitan Philadelphia and Pittsburgh likely would provide Republicans a better electoral chance.
If voters approve the amendment, then lawmakers would be tasked with enacting the details of the transition, including drawing population-based district boundaries and dictating the timing of the transition to district elections.
Currently, two Democrats on the seven-member high court will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2037. One gets there in 2035 and a fourth in 2027. Before that, they have to run in up-or-down retention races without an opponent for another 10-year term that justices almost always win.
But, under the district-based model, their seats would move to a district when their terms expire. For three of them, that year is 2025 and one in 2027. A fifth, Max Baer, must retire in 2022.
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