The Lead

Attorneys denounce GOP rep.’s ‘politically motivated’ impeachment call for Pa. Supreme Court Justice Wecht

By: - October 8, 2020 2:10 pm

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

A Republican lawmaker from Lebanon County is calling for the impeachment of state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht, arguing the jurist has been legislating from the bench, according to multiple published reports.

In a memo circulated Tuesday, the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Ryan, said he was not “taking this first step towards the removal of a Supreme Court Justice lightly,” but “regrettably, [his] actions undermine the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary; betray the trust of the People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Ryan’s resolution accuses Wecht of judicial activism in several recent decisions, including the 2018 ruling that redrew the state’s congressional map, as well as an opinion dealing with Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown orders, according to the Tribune-Review, which was first to report the story.

The resolution, now before the House Judiciary Committee, has garnered 35 co-sponsors, the newspaper reported, adding that it was unlikely to ever come to a vote. Wecht, of Allegheny County, was elected to the high court as a Democrat in 2011.

Still, the measure provoked immediate pushback from Wecht’s high court colleagues, as well as the professional association representing Pennsylvania’s trial bar, which denounced it as “politically motivated.”

“Impeachment is a rare tool that should never be used for political purposes, as is the case with this resolution.  Our judges must be able to independently hear cases and use discretion that is free from outside influence or threats,” Pennsylvania Association for Justice President Paul Lagnese and Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association President Dan Jeck said in a joint statement. “This attempt by certain legislators to remove one Justice and intimidate the others because of their unwillingness to accept the decision of the Court is exactly the type of assault on the Judiciary our forefathers sought to prevent.”

In a separate statement, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, who was elected as a Republican, said that “an independent judiciary is a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. Threats of removal directed against judges based upon their decisions in selected cases are an affront to judicial independence.”

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a co-chair of the Pennsylvania Judicial Independence Commission said Ryan’s resolution was “is just the latest bid in what seems like a national trend — threatening to impeach judges because of disagreement with their decisions.

“This challenge, like the others, is a direct threat to a bedrock of our constitutional democracy — an
independent judiciary,” Jones continued. “Judges need to decide cases based on their understanding of what the law
requires, without worrying that they might be removed from office if political actors don’t like their decisions.”

This isn’t the first time that the high court, which has a majority of justices elected as Democrats, has earned the ire of the GOP-controlled General Assembly. In 2018, all five members of the court’s progressive majority were targeted in an impeachment resolution because of their vote to strike down the state’s congressional map.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.