The New York Times shed some light on this on Monday:
G.O.P. legislators, dozens of whom supported overturning the state’s election results to aid former President Donald J. Trump, are moving to change the entire way that judges are selected in Pennsylvania, in a gambit that could tip the scales of the judiciary to favor their party, or at least elect judges more inclined to embrace Republican election challenges.
The proposal would replace the current system of statewide elections for judges with judicial districts drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature. Those districts could empower rural, predominantly conservative areas and particularly rewire the State Supreme Court, which has a 5-to-2 Democratic lean.
Democrats are now mobilizing to fight the effort, calling it a thinly veiled attempt at creating a new level of gerrymandering — an escalation of the decades-old practice of drawing congressional and state legislative districts to ensure that political power remains in one party’s hands. Democrats are marshaling grass-roots opposition, holding regular town hall events conducted over Zoom, and planning social media campaigns and call-in days to legislators, as well as an enormous voter education campaign. One group, Why Courts Matter Pennsylvania, has cut a two-minute infomercial.
Republicans in Pennsylvania have historically used gerrymandering to maintain their majority in the legislature, despite Democratic victories in statewide elections. Republicans have controlled the State House of Representatives since 2011 and the State Senate since 1993.
A proposed constitutional amendment to have Pennsylvania appellate court judges elected by geographic districts rather than statewide won’t be on the May primary ballot, but nobody on either side thinks that it’s a dead issue.
“I’m confident that this bill will move,” said state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon County, the sponsor of House Bill 38, which would divide statewide court elections into nine Commonwealth Court districts, 15 Superior Court districts and seven Supreme Court districts.
Deborah Gross, the CEO and president of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, predicted that opponents would be re-upping their fight against the bill sooner rather than later. “I do think we’ll see activity again for the November ballot,” she said.
Carol Kuniholm, who leads Fair Districts PA, told supporters in an email earlier this month that the bill was tabled and her group was now turning its attention to legislative redistricting.
“While it’s possible legislative leaders will attempt to pass (H.B. 38) in time for the general election in November, we are hopeful that the outcry of opposition from constituents, advocacy organizations and law associations turned the tide, convincing legislators and their leaders to set this very bad bill aside,” Kuniholm wrote.
The data needed to redraw Pennsylvania’s political districts is more than five months behind schedule, raising concerns among advocates for fair maps that state lawmakers could use the delay to fast-track the redistricting process and make it less transparent.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced Friday that it can’t release the population figures needed for redistricting until Sept. 30, citing setbacks in collecting responses to questionnaires during the coronavirus pandemic.
That means state lawmakers can’t begin the once-in-a-decade drawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative and congressional lines in earnest until September. The shortened timeline could also put the 2022 primary election at risk of being delayed.
Carol Kuniholm — chairperson of Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit group advocating for redistricting reform — said she’s concerned lawmakers will use the delay as an excuse to limit transparency and public input, which has been minimal in previous decades.
In December 2011, Republican lawmakers revealed and passed a new congressional map in less than two weeks. That map was later overturned by the state Supreme Court, which called it a partisan gerrymander that diluted Democrats’ votes “in order to give the party in power a lasting electoral advantage.”
Pennsylvania is expected to lose a congressional seat this year — raising the stakes even higher — and Republicans who control how that map is drawn must get Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s approval. The legislative political lines, meanwhile, can determine which party controls the General Assembly and dictates policy-making decisions for the next decade.
Kuniholm’s group wants lawmakers to pass a bill requiring more public hearings and citizen involvement in the process.
We need to keep fighting back and get ready to hold onto and expand our majorities on the Pennsylvania Courts. Click below to donate and get involved with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, Fair Districts PA and these judicial candidates:
- Pennsylvania Democratic Party
- Fair Districts PA
- Maria McLaughlin for Supreme Court
- Carolyn Nichols for Supreme Court
- Timika Lane for Superior Court
- Jill Beck for Superior Court
- Bryan Neft for Superior Court
- Deborah Canty for Superior Court
- Sierra Thomas Street for Commonwealth Court
- David Spurgeon for Commonwealth Court
- Amanda Green-Hawkins for Commonwealth Court
- Lori Dumas for Commonwealth Court