Judicial redistricting proposal clears Senate committee in party-line vote

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

A constitutional amendment that would overhaul how Pennsylvania elects its statewide appellate judges cleared a state Senate committee hurdle on party lines Monday, though it’ll ultimately be up to voters to decide whether it takes effect.

The polarizing measure sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, calls for the General Assembly to divide the state into judicial districts that correspond to seats on the state Supreme and lower appellate courts. Voters living in those districts would elect judges to spots on the bench, similar to how they currently elect representatives to seats in the Legislature.

The bill advanced through the Senate State Government Committee by a vote of 7-4 Monday, with all Democrats on the panel voting against it.

Diamond’s bill, which was approved by the House in December, still has a long way to go before it gets folded into the state constitution.

It’s now headed to the full Senate for a floor vote, where it’s likely to win the support of the Republican majority.

From there, the proposed amendment must advance through the General Assembly a second time before voters ratify it at the ballot box. That means that voters could weigh in during the May 2021 primaries at the earliest.

Right now, Pennsylvania judges run statewide campaigns for seats on the high courts. Diamond and others say his measure would create more ideological and geographical diversity on the courts by ensuring that justices hail from different parts of the state.

Supporters such as Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said it would increase the chances of judicial candidates from counties like hers to land seats on appellate benches. York County has not sent a candidate to the appellate courts since 1969, she said Monday.

Opponents, however, say the proposal would entrench partisanship in Pennsylvania’s judiciary.

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They also warn that lawmakers would draw judicial districts to consolidate blocs of voters from their own political party – a practice known as gerrymandering. Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, said Monday that would undermine the independence of the judicial branch and “[fly] in the face of the balance of powers” in government.

Pennsylvania is one of 22 states where voters elect judges in statewide elections, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups have long called for Pennsylvania to move to a merit-based selection process to appoint judges to the bench.

Even if Pennsylvania were to maintain its elected judiciary, critics say, voters should be able to elect their judges from a statewide pool of talent, rather than from regions that are determined by the legislature.

“The role of the judiciary is to decide cases based on the law and the facts in front of them – not to provide political representation for Pennsylvanians in a specific region,” CommonCause PA said in an emailed statement Monday.

Gov. Tom Wolf cannot veto proposed constitutional amendments, which means that Diamond’s proposal could land before voters if Republicans maintain their legislative majority in the 2020 elections.