Judicial Districts and Judicial Independence

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This week the Republican leadership of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives plan to take up a HB 196, a constitutional amendment proposed by Representative Russ Diamond to elect the appellate court judges who sit on the Supreme Court and the two second-level courts, the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court, by districts rather than in statewide elections. This proposal is similar to the Aument amendment to SB22 a redistricting reform proposal that passed the Senate but stalled in the House last year.

HB 196 is deeply problematic for three reasons.

First, given the role judges play in our constitutional government, district election is unnecessary. We elect legislators by district because it is important that regional interests be accounted for in the process of enacting legislation. But there is no regional way to interpret the statutes or Constitution of our commonwealth.

Second, electing judges in districts can make it more difficult to put the best qualified judges on the bench. Representative Diamond points out that the appellate judiciary does not represent the geographic diversity of the state. But that is not the relevant consideration. We want appellate courts judges with the legal experience in appellate matters and / or judicial experience to sit on these courts. Men and women with that kind of experience are more likely to be found in the urban, commercial centers of the state. And the record shows that people with such experience from the more rural counties are able to secure places on the appellate courts.

And third, HB 196 would, in two ways, give the General Assembly far more influence over the courts than is appropriate in a government that respects the separation of powers. By gerrymandering judicial districts and by using the transition process to prevent the current judges from running in retention elections, the General Assembly would be able influence both the partisan and individual composition of the courts in ways that undermine judicial independence.

Read a detailed memo analyzing HB 196 here.

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