Pennsylvania Redistricting Fight Turns Into Squabble Over Electing Judges

The fight over trying to take politics out of drawing Pennsylvania's legislative and congressional districts shifted Wednesday to the state House of Representatives, where majority Republicans may be mostly interested in overhauling how state appeals judges are elected.

A measure to amend the state constitution passed the Republican-controlled state Senate, 35-14, in a near party-line vote after Democrats complained that they had been blindsided by Republicans in the bill's 11th hour after months of bipartisan work.

It heads to the Republican-controlled House, where there's been comparatively little discussion about the topic.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the House would hold a "transparent and robust" discussion of the Senate bill and, although he supports electing judges by district, he was not familiar with every provision in the bill.

"By no means will the House of Representatives be a rubber stamp," Turzai said shortly after the Senate vote.

Creating a citizens' commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts every decade had garnered bipartisan support in the Senate amid Republican backlash over Pennsylvania's Democratic-majority Supreme Court overturning the state's GOP-drawn map of congressional districts earlier this year.

How Redistricting Reshaped Pennsylvania for Voters

Here's a graphic that illustrates how drastically different the state's 18 congressional districts are. Plug in your address to see in which district you will vote, and how many Democrats and Republicans participated in the the last two midterm primaries.

Source: Pennsylvania Secretary of State, AP
Credit: Sam Hart/NBC

Under the Senate's bill, commission members would be picked by top lawmakers and the governor, and require approval by supermajorities of lawmakers. The bill also takes pains to ensure that the court does not put itself in a position to redraw districts, if a map is successfully challenged in court.

On Tuesday, Republicans muscled in a new provision: electing state appellate judges by district, rather than statewide.

That addresses longstanding Republican complaints that candidates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh win a disproportionate share of judicial seats, but drew complaints from Democrats that Republicans were gerrymandering the courts.

The move comes two years after Democrats won a Supreme Court majority, and it threatens the lifespan of the court's Democratic majority, all of whom are from the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh areas.

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.

House Republicans said it was not clear to what extent members of their majority were interested in creating a citizen commission, even if many are still disgusted with how the court redrew the state's congressional districts.

Still, Republicans roundly said that they sensed strong support for carving the state into districts to elect appellate judges.

"I don't feel as though I'm being represented, so I would vote for that in a heartbeat," said Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams. "That would certainly balance things out."

Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said the idea "has a lot of support in the caucus."

Senate officials say there is a tight deadline — July 6 — to approve the measure in both chambers and comply with constitutional guidelines to amend the constitution before 2022's elections.

That's when every state must draw new boundaries to account for decade-long population shifts identified in the census. The flurry of activity comes less than three weeks before the start of the state's new fiscal year when assembling a new state budget typically is the center of attention.

"I'm not sure if it's something that will get a whole of time prior to the budget, because we are in the middle of June now," Moul said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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