OP-ED: Fight GOP plan to stack Pennsylvania courts

Chris Bronder
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

In a breathtaking display of both hypocrisy and speed, the Pennsylvania Senate last week passed, signed and registered with the Secretary of State’s office a bill (HB 196) that would require all of our appellate judges to be individually elected from regional judicial districts, the lines of which are to be drawn by the legislators themselves.

The current constitutional process for electing our appellate judges is for all Pennsylvanians, collectively, “as one,” to elect them.

House and Senate Republicans are proposing this new judicial electoral process under the pleading that most of our judges come from just two counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny, thereby not providing fair and equal representation for other regions of the state on our courts.

Already, others more qualified than I have urgently written on the grave constitutional dangers contained in this bill. I will not repeat those arguments here.

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But as a volunteer with FairDistrictsPA, the shocking hypocrisy for me is with House and Senate Republicans protesting about the unfairness of judges hailing from just two counties (actually not true) but apparently being just fine with the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) that draws our state Senate and House districts every 10 years following the census. 

The LRC is composed of just five people — the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, plus a fifth unelected, non-politician member — who draw 253 statewide electoral districts (203 House districts, 50 Senate districts). And of these five members, only a majority of three is actually necessary to approve a redistricting plan for 253 districts.  Neither the full General Assembly nor the governor has a vote on their plan.  

And in 2011, the LRC was composed of five people representing just two counties: Allegheny and Delaware.

And as everyone knows these days, Pennsylvania maps coming out of this LRC are among the most unfair, gerrymandered maps in the country, eviscerating the most fundamental principles of republican government: the right and ability of the people to choose their representatives, and the right to rely on their vote in equal proportion to any other.

But of all this malfeasant concentration of power within their own legislative branch of government?  Apparently no problem for Harrisburg Republicans.

Point number two:  For over four years now, FairDistrictsPA has supported redistricting reform bills in the House and Senate (this session: HB22/23 and SB1022/1023) that would create an 11-member independent citizens redistricting commission for the 2021 redistricting process. The commission selection process calls for regional (“geographic”) representation on it in much the same way that Republicans are now (mistakenly) demanding it for judicial districts.

But what of our call for fairness and equal representation?

In spite of overwhelming popular support evidenced by municipal and county resolutions of support, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, public opinion polling, and even overwhelming legislator co-sponsorship, these reform bills could not even get a vote in either House or Senate State Government committees to move them on for full floor votes.

There is something seriously wrong here.

Even the most jaundiced political eyes see HB 196 for what it is: a naked power play for judicial branch intimidation and control by the legislative branch. A plan to “stack the courts.”

As it would amend our state Constitution, HB 196 must pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before going to a referendum vote. This bill must be defeated when it comes up for second passage in January 2021.

But start now. Contact your local state representative and senator today to express your disapproval of HB 196. Pennsylvanians must not be complicit in destroying the independence of our judicial branch.

— Chris Bronder is a member of FairDistrictsPA's York County chapter.