AP NEWS

Reject Plan For Judicial Gerrymander

May 17, 2019

Statewide judicial elections in Pennsylvania are fraught with apathy, confusion, and special-interest and big-money influence. It produces the spectacle of supposedly neutral, apolitical arbiters appealing for campaign money to lawyers, business and labor interests, and other parties with direct interests in the outcomes of appellate cases. Average voters, meanwhile, are left to ponder such matters as ballot position, ethnic or geographical affinity in casting ballots, because the rules covering judicial conduct preclude any in-depth discussion of most issues. Atop that is the recent trend of third-party political advocacy groups, fueled by anonymous “dark money” contributions, to muddy the process further with negative advertising. Yes, it can be worse This being Pennsylvania, leaders of the Republican House majority have come up with a plan to make the situation even worse. By use of gerrymandering, one of the tools that has helped to create and maintain Republican legislative majorities in a majority-Democratic state, GOP legislative leaders hope to re-create the state judiciary in the image and likeness of the Legislature — a very bad idea. A constitutional amendment to change appellate judicial selection from direct election to a merit selection and gubernatorial appointment process, with legislative approval, appeared to be gaining steam in 2018. But the state Supreme Court, with a majority of justices elected as Democrats, threw out the state’s congressional district map because it egregiously had been gerrymandered, and commissioned an independent expert to devise a fair map. In the subsequent election, the state congressional delegation went from a 13-5 Republican majority to 9-9. Incensed legislative Republicans attempted to hijack the judicial reform process in response. Rather than selecting judges through a statewide merit process, Republican leaders moved a proposal to gerrymander the judiciary. Divide and conquer They would maintain appellate elections but carve the state into multiple appellate judicial districts, which the legislative majority, in effect, would devise. There would be nine Commonwealth Court districts, 15 Superior Court districts and seven Supreme Court districts. Another proposal would eliminate elections and create eastern, central and western judicial districts, from which committees would recommend candidates for appointment by the governor and confirmation by the Senate. That is better than the shameless gerrymander approach of the other legislation. The worst scenario is statewide appellate judges being captive to local political considerations. “It’s not what the judiciary was intended to be and to do, and this is a true corruption of the judicial system,” said Maida Malone of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which favors merit selection. The Pennsylvania Bar Association also favors merit selection. Four former Supreme Court justices, Democrat Stephen Zappala and Republicans Ronald Castille, William Lamb and Sandra Schultz Newman, oppose the gerrymander plan because appellate judges are supposed to consider the interests of the entire commonwealth rather than only those of small districts where their electoral fortunes would reside. No reform could eliminate all politics in selecting nominees for powerful offices. But the objective, especially for the judiciary, should be to reduce politics as much as possible. And the answer to that is qualification-based merit selection and gubernatorial appointment with confirmation by the Senate. If lawmakers carry through on this plan to amend the constitution in favor of further politicizing the judiciary, voters should be prepared to reject it.