Keep politics out of the courts

Judicial philosophy should not be partisan, and it certainly should not be geographical.

But a bill circulating through our state legislature right now threatens to make it both. House Bill 38 would abolish the statewide elections by which Pennsylvanians choose appellate court judges and replace those elections with races held in partisan districts drawn by lawmakers.

With the power to draw the district lines for choosing judges, legislators would be able to apply improper influence on a judiciary that is supposed to be impartial and independent.

It’s a measure that would politicize our courts, give the state legislature undue influence in choosing judges, and snatch power out of the hands of Pennsylvania’s voters, where it belongs. Instead of having the power to elect 31 judges and justices, voters would be limited to just three choices — one Commonwealth Court judge, one Superior Court judge, and one Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.

By proposing to segregate our judicial choices to geographic areas, H.B. 38 ignores the wisdom of Pennsylvania’s founders, who designed a system that gives all Pennsylvanians a choice in selecting all statewide judges.

For this reason, many nonpartisan organizations – including the League of Women Voters, Fair Districts PA, ACLU-PA, and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania – oppose this bill. These groups recognize that judges are supposed to be independent, non-political arbiters of the law, not partisan advocates representing people in geographic areas.

Passage of H.B. 38 threatens to give legislators unbridled influence over the judiciary.

If lawmakers don’t like a judge’s decisions, they could easily change or threaten to change the map, moving that judge out of their current district and making them ineligible for the bench. This undermines the bedrock of judicial independence. Unlike legislators, judges don’t represent districts. Their sole mission is to apply the law regardless of your address in Pennsylvania or theirs.

House Bill 38 is being rushed through with no public hearings, no expert testimony, and no input from the very people that this change to the Pennsylvania Constitution would affect for generations to come. The proposal would blur the lines between the legislative and judicial branches in a way that turns our back on the founding principles of an independent judiciary and the separation of powers.

The bill would also render qualification and fitness for office irrelevant, and replace these with an arbitrary, movable geographic boundary. Imagine a qualified lawyer from Northwest Pennsylvania being unable to run for judge because, where there were once multiple seats, we now only allow one judge from the Northwest. That would be the reality of this legislation. It would take a system that has worked for years and replace it with a system unlike almost any other in the country.

Make no mistake — the intent of this legislation is power and control. It allows the legislature to tip the scales and snatches the power to choose away from voters. To me, that sounds like a bad idea. I will be voting no, and I encourage all of you to call your representatives and tell them to vote “no” as well on this bad legislation.

State Rep. Bob Merski is a Democrat representing Erie County.


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