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Amendment Called Open Door to Gerrymandering

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The state Senate approved the bill 26-24 with four Republicans joining Democrats to vote no. (pabrady63/Adobe Stock)
The state Senate approved the bill 26-24 with four Republicans joining Democrats to vote no. (pabrady63/Adobe Stock)
July 16, 2020

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Critics say an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution narrowly approved by the state Senate yesterday would allow the majority party to dominate the courts.

Pennsylvania's appellate court judges are chosen in statewide elections. The proposed amendment would divide the state into judicial districts devised by the General Assembly and impose a residency requirement for candidates.

Sponsors say regionalizing judicial elections would make them more reflective of the state's population. But Kadida Kenner, campaign director for We the People Pennsylvania, calls it a Republican attempt to gerrymander the state's courts.

"They could have districts that pick up more red counties, which will give them more Republican judges," says Kenner. "Versus a statewide election for our appellate court."

To be enacted, the amendment must be approved by both the House and Senate again in the next legislative session and then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

Supporters of the measure say more than 60% of the state's 31 appellate court judges come from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, which are majority Democratic. But Kenner points out that those urban counties are where the best candidates work.

"These are our highest-level judges in the state and so they work with some of the larger law firms," says Kenner, "some of the professors at larger schools who are able to be successful in this role."

She adds that while the judges may live predominantly in those counties, they come from several different counties across the state and some are even from other states.

The amendment passed the House late last year on a mostly party-line vote with a few Republicans joining all the Democrats in voting no.

Kenner believes the motivation behind the measure is Republican anger over rulings that have gone against them.

"This started under the gerrymandering ruling and the unfair map," says Kenner. "And this is an opportunity for them to basically seek revenge on our appellate court because they don't agree with some of the rulings that have come out."

She says partisan control of the courts, by either party, erodes the independence of the judiciary as a separate and equal branch of government.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA