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Judicial Districts Amendment Faces Bipartisan Skepticism

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Advocates fear politicized appellate court judicial elections would put civil rights and liberties in jeopardy. (md3d/Adobe Stock)
Advocates fear politicized appellate court judicial elections would put civil rights and liberties in jeopardy. (md3d/Adobe Stock)
 By Andrea Sears - Producer, Contact
March 8, 2021

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A proposed amendment to Pennsylvania's state constitution that would create judicial districts for the election of appellate court judges won't be on the primary ballot in May, but it could still go to the voters this year.

House Bill 38 was put on hold after two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against the measure.

Supporters of the amendment claim it would increase regional diversity on the courts by electing judges from more rural areas, but opponents say it would undermine the separation of powers by politicizing judicial selection.

Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, pointed out judges don't have local constituents the way that other elected officials do.

"If we are going to have judges be elected then everybody should be allowed to weigh in on all of the people that sit on those courts because the rulings that they make apply to all Pennsylvanians," Randol argued.

The bill, as it is currently written, would need to pass both houses of the legislature by early September to be on the statewide ballot for the November election.

Opponents fear the amendment would lead to judicial gerrymandering by drawing district lines to favor the election of judges from the political party in power.

And Randol believes House Bill 38 leaves significant unanswered questions about creating judicial districts.

"There are a lot of missing details that leave open an unimaginable array of options that would be made available to the legislature to make decisions about how these districts are drawn and the process by which they do it," Randol contended.

Critics also pointed out the amendment has been pushed through the General Assembly without hearings or debate so far.

Randol noted another method of judicial selection, merit appointments, has bipartisan support.

She explained Republican lawmakers who support the option say they don't want to see judicial selection further entrenched in an electoral process.

"For them, this would just be going in the absolute wrong direction," Randol remarked. "Any chances of merit selection would be pretty much quashed if we carve up the state into judicial districts."

She added making judges beholden to the views of their local constituents would subvert the court's ability to protect civil rights and liberties against the tyranny of the majority.

Disclosure: ACLU of Pennsylvania contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Immigrant Issues, and LGBTQIA Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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