Fight over ju­di­cial elec­tions, re­dis­trict­ing shifts to House


HARRISBURG — 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.

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,” Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams, said. “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.

“By no means will

the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives be a rub­ber stamp.”

Mike Turzai

House speaker, r-al­le­gheny

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