- Katie Reilly
Say "No" to Gerrymandered Courts!
On Wednesday, February 3, more than 100 of our members heard eye-opening presentations from two experts on the GOP's efforts to gerrymander PA statewide courts, and how they're part of a larger strategy to maintain minority rule in the state. As one of our speakers, Carol Kuniholm, described it, Pennsylvania politics are like "playing three-dimensional chess in a shark tank."
Deborah R. Gross, Esq., President and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, and Carol Kuniholm, Chair of Fair Districts PA, laid out the PA legislature's proposal to create districts for the PA statewide courts that would politicize the courts and put them under the pressure of the legislature.
If you weren't able to make the meeting, you can find a recording on our YouTube channel, you can also find Deborah's and Carol's presentation slides here and here. There is so much rich information there, so please check them out! But here are the big takeaways.
The Republican-controlled house has put forward a bill (originally introduced as HB 196; currently HB 38) proposing a constitutional amendment to organize the judiciary into representative districts. This would affect the top tier of our courts—the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court, and Supreme Court—requiring judges to represent specific districts instead of the residents of the entire state. The justification for the amendment is that it would ensure more equal geographical representation, but it is thinly veiled retribution by the General Assembly, upset with recent rulings of the PA Supreme Court. Here are just a few reasons to be suspicious:
It's a flawed bill, rushed through with no testimony or public input. The Senate State Government Committee voted on it in July 2020 after only 9 minutes of debate, and the total time spent on this constitutional amendment in public was less than one hour!
The supposed reason for the bill—to bring geographic diversity to the courts—is flawed. As the ACLU of PA notes, "judges represent law, not a geographic area. Unlike the executive and legislative branches that represent constituents’ policy preferences when making decisions, the judiciary impartially interprets and applies the law...Any attempt, like HB 38, to remake the courts as entities responsive and beholden to the views of their constituents undermines the court's ability to protect civil rights and civil liberties against the tyranny of the political majority."
The bill is opposed by more than 100 organizations, including the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Allegheny, Pittsburgh, and Erie Bar Associations; the League of Women Voters; the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers; and the Committee of 70, to name just a few.
Luckily, it looks like HB 38 will not make it onto the ballot for the forthcoming May primary,
but we have every reason to think the General Assembly will try to push the amendment through in the future, so we need to be vigilant!
And, as Carol noted, this bill is just one example of the PA Republicans' ongoing efforts to maintain political power in a state that in fact skews Democratic. She talked about the positive effect of the 2018 court-ordered redistricting, bringing much more equal representation to the state; but warned that there is still work to be done (in 2018, 54% of the popular vote went to Democrats, but still only 45% of the legislative seats went to them).
The stakes are high in 2021, because, as Carol put it, "The next year will shape PA maps, politics, and policies for the next decade and beyond." A great opportunity is passing LACRA, the Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act, which introduces clear, measurable map-drawing criteria designed to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Fair Districts PA is also calling for people to demand transparency and accountability from the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC), which draws PA’s 50 state senate and 203 state house districts every ten years. They're hosting a town hall on Wednesday, February 17, with clear action steps we all can take to make our voices heard in the redistricting process.
It's just a reminder that there is no such thing as an "off" year in politics, and 2021 is in many ways going to be even more consequential for Pennsylvanians than 2020 was!