HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — A Pennsylvania Senate committee passed a bill Monday along party lines that would change how state appellate court judges are elected.
House Bill 196 — first introduced in a session last year by Senator Ryan Aument (R – Lancaster County) — would establish regional voting districts and do away with statewide, at-large judicial races.
Sen. Aument said this bill is all about empowering the voter and making sure more than just the densely-populated voices of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are represented at the state level.
Opponents, though, see this proposal as another GOP attempt at gerrymandering districts.
“Since 1969, the overwhelming members of the state appellate courts [the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Courts] — are from two counties, 57 percent, and that’s been the case for the last 50 years, from Allegheny County and Philadelphia County,” Aument said. “Currently, four of the seven Supreme Court Justices are from those two counties, from Philadelphia and Allegheny, which represent about 21 percent of the state’s population. Pennsylvania’s a far more diverse state than that!”
Aument calls HB 196 a fair, good-government measure – one that he argues would increase judicial diversity.
“It also increases the likelihood that the voters, that the resident – will know the candidates that they are selecting for the bench,” Aument said. “I think doing it on a more regional or local level will empower residents, empower citizens.”
The bill would divide the state into 31 judicial districts: seven Supreme Court districts, nine Commonwealth Court districts, and 15 Superior Court districts.
Right now, candidates for those courts run at-large, and anyone in any county can vote for them. House Bill 196, however, would force voters to vote only for someone from their respective district.
“If we’re gonna elect our judges, then I think it’s important the voters have the opportunity to engage with them as they’re running, and to question them and to meet them,” Aument said.
“It is an effort to politicize the court,” said Suzanne Almeida, of Commoncause PA. “Rather than voting for judicial candidates at-large from any point in our commonwealth, voters would only be able to vote for candidates in their districts, which would limit that right to vote.”
Critics like Almeida believe the bill would only further politicize judicial races.
“When you’re a judge, your job is not to represent constituents,” Almeida said. “Your job is to look at the facts and the laws, and the parties before you, and make decisions. This is an attempt to politicize judicial elections even past where they are [now].”
She said if diversity of the bench is really the goal, Republicans should look into a merit selection system.
“It’s a hybrid-appointed elective system that actually focuses on the qualifications for judges, rather than just where they live,” said Almeida.
Monday’s committee vote on HB 196 means the full Senate will likely take it up later this week; the House has already passed it in the current session.
For HB 196 to become a reality, it needs to pass both the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions, and then go to the voters for their input — the earliest that could happen is in the May 2021 primary.