As lawmakers prepare for a possible vote Wednesday on sweeping reforms to the state’s redistricting process, Senate Republicans on Tuesday introduced a new amendment that would create election districts for judges.
Senate Bill 22 would amend the state constitution to create an 11-member independent commission, with eight members chosen by House and Senate leaders of both major political parties and three picked by the governor.
Its members would be prohibited from holding political or party offices, and from being related to someone who does. A seven-vote majority would be required to approve a map and, if the panel cannot decide, the General Assembly would serve as tiebreakers.
But a new amendment from Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) approved Tuesday and incorporated into the bill (though Aument was adamant the issue would be considered by voters on separate ballot measures), would break up the state’s courts geographically.
Rather than elect judges at-large, the plan, if voters approved, would break up the commonwealth into nine Commonwealth Court districts, 15 Superior Court districts and seven Supreme Court districts.
The districts would be created by the same proposed independent commission that would draw legislative districts.
Opponents have said implementing judicial districts would inevitably lead to more conservative judges despite Pennsylvania’s Democratic majority of voters, similar to past efforts to award presidential electoral votes by congressional district.
Under such a system, it seems inevitable that the state Supreme Court’s current 7-to-2 Democratic majority would shift.
Aument denied partisan motives, and said the move would guarantee more diversity on the courts and better representation of voters from urban, suburban and rural areas.
He denied that the amendment is a “poison pill” — as it was described by Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) — to Senate Bill 22 as a whole.
“The voters of Pennsylvania will decide this issue,” he said.
At a press conference held Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Dauphin) chair of the Senate State Government committee, said the overall bill was the product of many meetings with several voters’ groups from across the state.
“We had some heated discussions. But we kept on meeting, and we kept on talking,” he said.
Folmer voted down Aument’s amendment and said he would vote nay on any other amendments beyond the omnibus. He said he has been pushing for redistricting reform since the beginning of his tenure, and said he wants to see this measure through “to the finish line.”
More than a dozen groups cosigned a letter last week pulling their support from the bill once it was amended to give legislators the power to appoint commission members.
They said the bill “enshrines the current perverse relationship of power between officials and voters … reinforcing the problem.”
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) accused Republicans of retaliating against judges whose decisions they disagreed with.
“Every one of you in this room knows that the reason we are doing this today and forcing it into Senate Bill 22 is because we want to retaliate against the Supreme Court,” Costa said.
And Leach said Aument’s amendment is a dealbreaker.
“They are using a bill to fix gerrymandering to gerrymander the Supreme Court and to gerrymander the courts of Pennsylvania,” Leach said.
Though the bill has been in the works for over a year, Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) said it’s not clear whether the plan would be finalized in time for 2021 redistricting.
“This is probably the biggest government reform bill in my lifetime,” he said at the Tuesday press conference. “The legislators stepped away from power.”
He touted the idea of the independent commission, noting that while some districts will still be quite large, they will “give you — the voters — the ability to understand who’s running and then, ultimately, hold them accountable, which is the most important part.”
He defended Aument’s amendment, saying that the inclusion of judiciary reform is “perfect timing.”
If the Legislature is creating a commission to draw up districts, and state Republicans want to move the judiciary to the districts, now is the time to get it done, he said.
He added that regionalization will mean higher voter turnout. Judges will be closer to the voters and will better engage the voters, and that will mean higher numbers at the polls, he said.
Other redistricting measures are being worked on in the state House, though none are as close to being passed as SB22.
Tomorrow’s planned vote comes five months after the state Supreme Court overturned previous congressional lines they said had been drawn to favor Republicans.