BLUE PENNSYLVANIA – THE DANGER OF SUPREME COURT JUDICIAL DISTRICTS

In July, the General Assembly passed HB 196, the first leg in a three-stage process to amend Pennsylvania’s Constitution.  Part of the amendment requires that each of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices is elected from one of seven judicial districts created by the General Assembly.  If the bill passes in the next session of the legislature, it could appear as a ballot question before the electorate as early as the spring of 2021.  It is therefore possible for some, if not all, of these reconstituted Supreme Court seats to be up for election by November of 2022.

Although it is difficult to predict the precise ramifications of such an amendment, a lawsuit currently in the Pennsylvania courts could provide the first test case of the new law.  This lawsuit asks the courts to mandate that the defendants in the case – the Governor and the General Assembly – allocate more resources to school districts that are currently under-funded by the State.  Given that Commonwealth Court expects to hear the case by the end of this year, it would be reasonable to expect a final decision by the Supreme Court no earlier than June 2023. 

Even though the General Assembly is a defendant in this lawsuit, it will still have the authority, under the proposed amendment, to create these new judicial districts.  Since the most underfunded school districts in the state are concentrated within about 20% of the state’s geographic area in southern and eastern Pennsylvania, it would therefore not be difficult for the legislature to create a majority of judicial districts out of populations with adequately funded schools.

Judicial candidates from these districts, in order to gain favor with the electorate, would likely shirk any mention of the ideals of justice and equality; appealing instead to the specific interests of their constituents by campaigning on a platform of “those greedy school districts in the Philadelphia area wanting to take money away from our children’s education.”

This case illustrates two major flaws in the proposed amendment: one being that the judiciary would no longer be an independent body, but would rather depend upon the General Assembly in the creation of these judicial districts; and the other being that judges would represent the special interests of particular regions of the State, rather than the interests of the entire Commonwealth.

How House and Senate members voted for this bill are available on the web.  Many of those members who voted in favor of it are running for re-election in the fall.  Would these legislators cast another vote in favor of the amendment if they regain their seats?  Hopefully they will divulge that information before November.

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