Around this time last year, we opined that a proposal to elect judges to the state’s appellate courts through regional elections rather than through statewide contests was a bad idea.
In the 12 months that have gone by, the whole misbegotten notion has not become any more attractive, but it has inched ever closer to becoming a reality. And it may be up to Pennsylvania voters to put a stop to it once and for all.
Since 2017, when the Democratic-dominated state Supreme Court ordered that the commonwealth’s gerrymandered congressional map be redrawn, Republicans in the Legislature have been looking for ways to strike back against the court, and they have hit upon a plan that would have the seven justices on the state Supreme Court, the 15 judges on the Superior Court and the nine judges on the Commonwealth Court be elected not as at-large candidates across the whole expanse of the state, but through regional elections. Proponents say this would allow all regions of Pennsylvania to be represented on the courts, and reduce the number of candidates from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that end up on the courts.
The measure made its way out of the state House’s judiciary committee last week on a narrow 13-12 vote. If it’s approved by the full House and Senate in the weeks ahead, it could end up in the hands of voters as soon as the primary in May.
Of course, the idea of regional representation on the courts sounds fair and small-d democratic. But it would only serve to politicize the bench even more, and give the Legislature inordinate power over who sits on the appellate courts and who doesn’t. Don’t like the way a judge ruled? Redraw their district so they’ll be out of a job at the next election, or have a tougher time holding on to their seat.
Under this proposal, rural voters in sparsely populated counties like Cameron, Forest and Fulton would ultimately have more power in choosing judges compared to their fellow Pennsylvanians in places like Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, where there would be a lot of “wasted” votes.
And, it should be noted, this would create 31 separate judicial districts across the state between the supreme, superior and commonwealth courts. This would hardly be a victory for anyone who wants to make state government leaner and less complicated.
Rather than move forward with this “reform,” lawmakers should instead look to having appellate judges chosen not at the ballot box, but instead have them be chosen through nonpartisan commissions that will evaluate the experience, ethics, temperament and character of candidates, and submit their picks to the governor. This approach has been advocated by Gov. Tom Wolf and a bipartisan cross-section of his predecessors.
Of the 50 states, only Louisiana and Illinois elect state judges on a regional basis. Pennsylvania shouldn’t join them.