Republicans’ Judicial Election Amendment Would Make PA An Outlier

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HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — The state legislature has launched an attempt to fundamentally change how Pennsylvania picks judges.

If approved, it would put the commonwealth in a small minority of states that use regional, partisan elections.

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg is seen on Aug. 19, 2019. Ian Sterling for WITF

The proposed constitutional amendment would have lawmakers draw district lines for the seven justices on the state Supreme Court, the 15 on the Superior, and the nine on the Commonwealth Court.

Republican Representative Russ Diamond, of Lebanon County, sponsored it — saying it’s a way to get more regional diversity on the courts.

“These seats,” he said, “have been utterly dominated by residents of Philadelphia and Allegheny County.”

According to the National Center for State Courts, only two states use the sort of regional, partisan elections Diamond is proposing — Illinois and Louisiana.

Like Pennsylvania, Illinois’ judges go up for yes-or-no retention elections once their terms run out. Louisiana holds partisan elections every time.

William Raftery, an analyst for the NCSC, noted that for lower appellate courts (i.e. not state supreme courts) it is more common to have some sort of regional aspect to judicial selection. About half of the states with intermediate appellate courts do; often, the judges are appointed or elected through nonpartisan races.

Raftery said ten states—including Louisiana and Illinois—take region into account when choosing judges for their highest courts.

Tim Briggs, a state Democratic Representative from Montgomery County, said he’s worried that partisan elections by district would make judges regionally biased.

“Going into a gerrymandered judicial district makes me really scared for the outcome,” he said.

He added, Democrats got little notice that Republican leaders intended to call the amendment up for a vote on the final session day before the legislature’s holiday recess.

The bill got first and second consideration votes back in April, then sat untouched on the legislative calendar for eight months. Briggs said he and his party leaders only learned about it around 10 a.m. the day of the vote.

“It’s common when it’s something they’re trying to sneak through,” he said. “And that is I think, unfortunately, what they’re trying to do.”

Diamond said the timing was merely a matter of convenience.

The amendment passed the House narrowly, with every Democrat and four Republicans voting against it.

It now goes to the Senate, which has approved a similar bill in the past. Diamond said he expects Senators will act on the amendment within a few months.

If approved, it would then need to pass both chambers again and go to voters for a referendum.