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Pennsylvania

Proposal would change way judges are elected to Pennsylvania's highest courts

| Saturday, June 16, 2018, 9:30 p.m.
People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.
Associated Press
People walk by the Pennsylvania Judicial Center on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Supporters of a Republican proposal to create judicial districts for Pennsylvania's highest courts say it would ensure all areas of the state are represented on the benches and reduce the impact of money and special interests on the judiciary.

Detractors call the proposal retaliation for the state Supreme Court's January ruling that the congressional district map drawn in 2011 was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

Thirteen of the state's 18 congressional districts are represented by Republicans, while the state's highest court has a Democratic majority. GOP lawmakers discussed impeaching the Democratic justices who ruled against the old map.

The proposal to create judicial districts was added to Senate Bill 22, which would put citizens in charge of congressional and legislative redistricting. State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, introduced the amendment shortly before Republicans passed the bill without any Democratic support. It now goes to the House.

Fair Districts PA chairwoman Carol Kuniholm argued it "looks pretty clear that the goal of this amendment is to strip the Supreme Court of its Democratic leanings," but Aument rejected accusations of retribution and said the proposal would "ensure that urban, suburban and rural Pennsylvania is represented on our courts."

Fair Districts PA and other redistricting advocacy groups have withdrawn support for the bill because of the judicial district amendment.

Currently, 21 of the 30 judges on Pennsylvania's Supreme, Commonwealth and Superior courts are from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas. Four of the seven Supreme Court justices are from the Pittsburgh area and one is from Philadelphia.

Under the bill, Pennsylvania would be divided into seven Supreme Court districts and at least seven Superior Court districts. It doesn't specify how many Commonwealth Court districts there would be.

At least four states — Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky — now elect Supreme Court judges by district, said Douglas Keith, counsel for the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

A Brennan Center analysis showed Pennsylvania's 2015 state Supreme Court race set a record, drawing $16.5 million. Democrats spent more than Republicans, and the party's candidates swept all three open seats.

Most judicial candidates lack widespread name recognition and need to raise and spend money to boost their profiles statewide. That process of seeking money and influential backers can erode the public's confidence in an independent judiciary, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said.

Keith was skeptical that transitioning to regional judicial elections would solve the problems of money and influence.

"In some ways it could make it worse, because outside groups may have an even greater ability to influence these races because they will be able to do so at a lower price tag," he said.

The Brennan Center favors creating commissions that would recommend judicial candidates to the governor or another authority, according to Keith.

A bipartisan bill to do that in Pennsylvania was introduced early last year. House Bill 111 would create a 13-member commission to select judicial candidates and refer them for approval to the governor and the state Senate. The bill would divide judicial districts into a central, western and eastern district. The House hasn't passed it.

If the redistricting bill that includes the judicial redistricting proposal passed the House, voters would then need to approve the proposed changes through a ballot referendum. Changing elections in Pennsylvania requires a constitutional amendment, and that requires legislators to pass a bill two years in a row and then get support from voters.

For the redistricting changes to be in place by the next round of map-drawing in 2021, the General Assembly needs to pass a bill by mid-July at the latest and then approve it again in the next session. If the bill doesn't pass, the General Assembly will again draw the districts as it did the last time.

Maida Milone, president of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the debate over the judicial districts confuses what the different branches of government are supposed to do.

Judges aren't supposed to represent the views and positions of people in given regions of the state, they are supposed to resolve matters of law, Milone said.

"Trying to have the same system in place for the selection of judges as you have for representatives I think really distorts our democracy," she said.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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