GOP plan to impeach 4 Pennsylvania justices remains in limbo

Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG – A proposal to impeach four Democratic justices on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court over redistricting rulings remains in limbo more than a month after resolutions were introduced by Republicans in the state House.

New congressional map chosen by the state Supreme Court and unveiled Feb. 19, 2018.

The state lawmaker leading the effort, which so far has just 12 co-sponsors in the 203-seat House, said he hopes to make the case to GOP representatives in a closed-door session the week of April 30.

“I haven’t had anybody that has said we don’t have the constitutional standing for this, or they can actually point me to where the judiciary had the ability to do what it did,” said Rep. Cris Dush, a Republican.

Of the 12 co-sponsors, three represent parts of York County: Reps. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township; Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township; and Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg.

Dush drafted the resolutions seeking the removal of justices David Wecht, Debra Todd, Christine Donohue and Kevin Dougherty. The four elected Democrats put on the fast track a legal challenge to a 2011 map of the state’s congressional districts passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by the governor at the time, Republican Tom Corbett.

The four then voted to declare the map violated the state constitution’s guarantee of free and equal elections, and enacted their own map, which is being used for this year’s congressional elections. Republicans had won 13 of the state’s 18 districts in each of the three elections held under the 2011 map.

The legal challenge to the 2011 map was vigorously opposed by the top-ranking Republicans in both chambers – Speaker Mike Turzai and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati – but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn the state justices’ decision. A three-judge federal panel also rejected a challenge by two GOP state senators and eight incumbent Republican congressmen.

Rep. Seth Grove at the Republican Committee election watch in the White Rose Room at Peoples Bank Park, Tuesday, November 7, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Dush’s resolutions accuse the justices of acting improperly through rulings that gave state lawmakers just three weeks to draw a new map and then enacted a court-drawn map.

Turzai chief of staff Karen Coates said Republican state representatives want to chew over the proposal. Turzai has “reservations with the broad nature of the resolutions,” said his spokesman, Neal Lesher.

“The caucus wants to talk about it, people are all over the board,” Coates said. “I think we’re going to take it to caucus and have a discussion as we do every other controversial issue.”

Dush said some of the opposition is coming from lawmakers who are themselves lawyers.

State Representative Kristin Phillips-Hill talks about her career and women in politics at her Jacobus office Thursday, July 6, 2017. She represents the 93rd Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Bill Kalina photo

“They’ve made statements that they can’t back it,” Dush said. “They’re not giving, again, a constitutional argument against it.”

The Republican leader of the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, voted against the four Democrats in the case, but also has come out strongly against the impeachment movement, describing it in a written statement as an attack on the judiciary’s independence.

House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said there is “zero support” for impeachment among his members.

Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, makes her way in to the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“We believe that many Republicans agree with us that this is a ridiculous effort that will go nowhere, but until somebody steps up on that side to put it to rest, we remain vigilant,” Patton said.

Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, one of the co-sponsors, is convinced that the court intruded on the Legislature’s territory.

“If I’m not mistaken, we have three branches of government,” Moul said. “I don’t remember seeing any of these judges sitting on the House floor with me or sitting over in the Senate.”

Some are also considering cuts to the courts’ budget in response, said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, a co-sponsor of the Dush-written resolutions.

“I think there’s a lot of life in this bill, and we’re approaching the budget process where another part of the discussion is utilizing the budget to throttle the Supreme Court back,” Metcalfe said.

Efforts to impeach or otherwise remove judges because of controversial rulings have been undertaken in at least a half-dozen states in recent years, according to the National Center for State Courts, but none has been successful.