Dozens of labor leaders, advocates call on lawmakers to drop judicial gerrymandering plan | Tuesday Morning Coffee

January 19, 2021 7:16 am

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

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In an extraordinary joint letter to the General Assembly, scores of labor unions, good government groups and progressive advocacy organizations are hitting back against a controversial change to the way Pennsylvania elects its appellate court judges, arguing that it’s a “massive threat to the independence of our judiciary.”

Last week, in a flurry of votes, state House committees advanced a half-dozen proposed constitutional amendments. Among them was a proposed revision that would require appellate judges, who now run statewide, to run in judicial districts, just like state lawmakers and members of Congress.

As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso has reported, the proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said the amendment would geographically balance the state’s high courts.

Opponents argue that by changing the electorate for justices from every voter in Pennsylvania, a swingy purple state, to voters in districts drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the General Assembly could effectively gerrymander the courts in their favor.

More astute readers will recall Democrats took over the state Supreme Court in a hard fought 2015 race.The five justices elected as Democrats have been a constant sore spot for Republicans. That anger has only grown after a ruling last fall on Pennsylvania’s recently passed mail-in voting law, Act 77Caruso reported.

(Image via The Pittsburgh Current/Adobe Stock)

Under state law, proposed constitutional amendments have to be approved in consecutive legislative sessions, and then by voters at a statewide referendum.

The House and Senate approved the amendment last session, which means the bill could be on the ballot as soon as this spring’s primary election if lawmakers in the two chambers again give their assent.

The Jan. 15 letter, signed by a diverse coalition of leaders from such labor unions as the Central Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council; the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO; various branches of the Services Employees International Union, such advocacy groups as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, the Women’s Law Project, as well as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Just Harvest, makes it clear that defeating the amendment is their top priority of the new legislative session.

In their letter, the labor leaders and advocates argue that the proposed amendment takes Pennsylvanians’ traditional right to elect judges and “eviscerates that right by muting their voice but for only three of the thirty-one appellate courts judges and justices,” the letter reads. “As a result, millions of Pennsylvanians are disenfranchised. No longer will our voices be heard by all judges running for an office possessing statewide jurisdiction. No longer will voters be able to hold appellate court judges accountable for their actions and decisions through retention elections.”

They go on to argue that “electing appellate judges from districts gerrymandered by the General Assembly will make those judges increasingly beholden to partisan politics instead of the United States Constitution, Pennsylvania Constitution, and the laws of the Commonwealth.

“Judges are not legislators whose job is to represent a specific community and should not be encouraged to care more or less about a case based on the region from which it arises,” they continue. “Judges should be free of influence from local biases and prejudices – their fidelity is to the law of the entire Commonwealth, and they should not be encouraged to consider how a specific regional judicial district would respond to a certain ruling.”

The amendment cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week by a one-vote margin after two Republicans defected, Caruso reported. One of those GOP lawmakers, Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Washington, was a “yes” vote for the amendment last session

“We are living in highly partisan times and think this bill does more to politicize the court instead of alleviating that issue,” Mihalek told Caruso.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto
 has kicked off his 2021 re-election campaign, optimistically looking to the future, even as he acknowledged the challenges facing the state’s second-largest city, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a Northwestern University professor says the white supremacists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. And Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills reflects on the challenges awaiting President-elect Joe Biden when he takes the keys to the White House on Wednesday.

(Getty Images via The Beacon)

White Philadelphians are mostly getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The Inquirer explains what the city is doing to level the playing field.
A Harrisburg woman accused of stealing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, D-Calif., laptop is in custody, the Tribune-Review reports.
State corrections officials are defending a policy of not always telling families when inmates are sickSpotlight PA reports (via PennLive).
A Bucks County man has been arrested for allegedly threatening Gov. Tom WolfPresident-elect Joe Biden, and other Democrats, the Morning Call reports.
The Citizens-Voice takes readers inside President-elect Joe Biden’s childhood home in Scranton.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Justin Hendrik Schultz (@j_hendrik_s)

Dr. Ala Stanford, the head of the Philadelphia Black Doctors Consortium, has urged President-elect Joe Biden to send in the National Guard to assist in vaccine distribution, WHYY-FM reports.
Welfare enrollment has dropped statewide during the pandemic. WESA-FM explains why that’s happened.
Local groups in Washington County will make their pitch for $18 million worth of gaming-funded grant money this week, the Observer-Reporter reports.
The cleanup at Erie’s coke (the coal byproduct, not the soda) plant could exceed $7 million, GoErie reports.
U.S. Defense Secretary-designee Lloyd Austin 
will face questions about domestic terror threats and civilian control of the military during his Senate confirmation hearings, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
10 a.m., Online: House Democratic Policy Committee 
takes up the misinformation surrounding the 2020 election, as well as what the the state can do better next time.
12 p.m., Forum Auditorium: State Treasurer-elect Stacy Garrity takes the oath of office.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s one from The Clash that’s been on repeat of late. From 1979’s classic ‘London Calling’ LP, it’s ‘Wrong ‘Em Boyo.’ The song is a ska classic originally sung by The Rulersand was a fixture on the band’s jukebox in its rehearsal space at Rehearsal Rehearsals.

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina hung on Monday night to beat Nashville 4-2 at Bridgestone Arena. ‘Canes goalie James Reimer made 21 saves in his first start of the season, while Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Vincent Trocheck each had a goal and assist on the way to the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

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