Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday moved to capitalize on the political momentum behind adopting a less partisan redistricting system to overhaul how state appeals judges are elected, drawing howls of protest from Democrats.
The GOP majority muscled provisions into a redistricting bill so that appeals court judges would be elected by district, rather than statewide. The measure would address long-standing Republican complaints that candidates from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions win a disproportionate share of statewide judicial races, compared to candidates from the rest of the state.
The vote was 31-18, with every Democrat and two Republicans voting no. Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth court judges would be phased out as their current terms expire, and the courts would gradually be filled by those elected from districts.
If voters approve the bill’s citizens’ commission, the commission will draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts.
The move comes amid Republican backlash over Pennsylvania’s Democratic-majority Supreme Court overturning the state’s GOP-drawn map of congressional districts earlier this year.
The court’s Democrats — all from the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh areas — ruled that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered congressional boundaries. A court-ordered map of redrawn districts now in place is likely to shrink a 12-6 Republican advantage in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation in a state where Democrats have won 18 of the last 24 statewide elections.
The bill would amend the constitution and requires passage twice in both the House and Senate before it can go before voters in a statewide referendum. That could happen as early as next year.
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“This vote will take the idea of fairness in judicial selection to the people of Pennsylvania and let them have their say at the ballot box,” said Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington.
Democrats said shoehorning the judicial election provision into a bill setting up a commission to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries was a Republican power grab.
“This is going to result in one-party control of the appellate courts forever,” argued Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. He said it was ironic that the redistricting bill was the vehicle to “gerrymander the courts.”
“That’s how we got into this mess in the first place, allowing one political party to draw districts in a way that they find advantageous,” Leach said.
The sponsor, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said his amendment would allow lawmakers to add new seats on Superior or Commonwealth courts at any time, and redraw district lines to accommodate them.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, called the amendment “retaliation or revenge” for the court-drawn congressional districts.
“Somebody once said revenge is best served cold,” Hughes said. “This is a cold day that this revenge is trying to be brought forward.”
Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, argued the changes would open the process up to a wider range of candidates, not just those “who have big law firms behind them who can run statewide.” He also argued that the judicial election changes would make the wider redistricting bill more appealing in the House, where he said the concept “hasn’t exactly been warmly received.”
In the House, there are several competing plans, including one by Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana. House Republicans began discussing the topic of redistricting Tuesday behind closed doors. Reed’s bill would set up a commission of randomly selected members to redraw congressional and legislative districts and it carries a far smaller role for lawmakers.
Under the Senate bill , legislative and congressional districting — and perhaps judicial districting — would be put in the hands of an 11-member commission. Members would be recommended by the four legislative caucus leaders and the governor and require approval by supermajorities of lawmakers. It would include three people who are neither a registered Republican nor Democrat.
More detailed selection rules would have to be worked out later by the Legislature. Approval of maps would require supermajorities of the commission.