How Trumpism is threatening judicial independence in Pennsylvania | Opinion

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

By Tim Briggs

The radical right agenda has infiltrated the Pennsylvania legislature and threatens the independence of our judiciary. We rely on a fair and independent judicial system to administer equal justice under the law, free from outside pressure and influence. But, as we approach a critically important election, that independence is on the line because of a politically motivated attempt to rig our courts.

The most radicalized Republican members of the legislature reign over districts simply because they picked their constituents through gerrymandering. The lack of compromise, civility and gridlock in Harrisburg can be directly linked to gerrymandering.

The same radicalized Republicans in control in Harrisburg are pushing a proposed constitutional change, which would, if finally approved by the voters, amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to create judicial districts for our appellate courts, rather than elect them on a statewide basis.

It’s a bad bill that shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the judiciary and its role in our society. Appellate court decisions impact the rights of all Pennsylvanians, from Erie to King of Prussia and everywhere in between. Appellate judges are elected to interpret our laws, not to represent any particular special interests or regional biases.

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Judges are to be free of influence and not bring their own agenda to the courts. Electing judges from districts drawn by radicalized politicians would make those judges increasingly beholden to special interests instead of the law, depriving Pennsylvanians of an independent and impartial appellate judiciary.

We are witnessing in real time a coordinated war on societal norms, facts, science, civility, compromise and American institutions. These same politicians led by Donald Trump are actively working to turn Americans against each other so they can consolidate power within their own ruling party. House Bill 196 is a means to that end.

If the legislation (HB196), sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, becomes law, it would pit regions against each other and cause disparate interpretations of the same law. Diamond’s bill is judicial gerrymandering, pure and simple.

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It’s sour grapes from power-hungry politicians angry that their gerrymandered congressional map was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2018 — a decision that prompted Republican lawmakers to call for impeaching the justices who voted to strike down the map. And this summer, the judicial gerrymandering bill moved through the Senate shortly after the Supreme Court, to the ire of many Republicans, upheld Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration.

But in a democracy, you don’t get to rig the system because a decision didn’t go your way. The radical Trumpism agenda being pushed in Harrisburg must be confronted, and we cannot allow these extremist Republicans to undermine our institutions by pushing a bill simply because the current rules do not advance their radical worldview.

Diamond’s proposed amendment will undermine the voters’ ability to select from the best and brightest legal minds from across the commonwealth and, instead, put the drawing of judicial districts in the hands of the very politicians who have gerrymandered congressional maps.

Moreover, the scorched-earth politics used by these Harrisburg politicians, who have controlled Harrisburg for nearly 30 years, has been to ram through fundamental constitutional amendments with little discussion and no compromise.

In fact, another reason to oppose this bill is the process that brought us this far. Potential amendments to the state constitution deserve at least one public hearing, and yet this bill was shamefully rammed through with no hearing and no meaningful opportunity for improvements.

Changing the way a coequal branch of government is organized is a major undertaking, and transparency in the process should not be sacrificed for the sake of speed and a radical-right agenda. Attempts to manipulate the courts are disturbing, but not new.

A review by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that in 2019, at least 25 state legislatures had bills before them that would risk weakening the courts by giving political actors more control over judicial selection, decision-making or administration.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, HB196 will need to pass the House and Senate again in the next legislative session. I have no doubt majority Republicans in Harrisburg will continue to push the bill early in the next legislative session. Without Democratic control of at least one chamber of our legislature, there is little to stop this frontal attack on judicial independence.

Extremist politicians having temper tantrums and pushing radical ideas like this one is not conducive to cooperation and solving real problems affecting our citizens during this deadly pandemic.

Diamond’s proposed amendment is yet another reason your voice is critical. We must reject Trumpism and radical agendas and recognize this bill for what it is – judicial gerrymandering – and fight to safeguard our institutions and the independence of our judiciary.

State Rep. Tim Briggs, a Democrat, represents the Montgomery County-based 149th District. He is the ranking Democrat on the state House Judiciary Committee. He writes from Harrisburg.