Some GOP state lawmakers want to disenfranchise 9 million PA voters

by Elizabeth Randol

One thing that is clear after the 2020 election and the ensuing lies and chaos fueled by the former president: attempts to undermine our democracy continue unabated in state capitols across the nation. As some GOP state legislators in Pennsylvania who sowed confusion and doubt about the results of the electoral college double-down on these lies, some pundits are speculating that this assault on democracy is only going to intensify in coming years.

Indeed, in Pennsylvania alone, no fewer than 14 pieces of legislation aimed at rolling back voting rights have been introduced so far this year — the most by any state legislature in the nation. Fortunately, as with many of the former president’s legal attempts to overturn the election results, Pennsylvanians can typically count on the courts to do the right thing in defending voters’ rights.

This is what makes the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branch such a powerful check on elected officials.

But a state constitutional amendment, making its second pass through the General Assembly this session, would replace statewide elections of Pennsylvania appeals court judges and justices with elections by geographical districts. Unsurprisingly, the bill grants the power to draw these new judicial districts to the legislature — a power it has repeatedly shown it cannot wield responsibly without creating partisan gerrymanders.

Handing the legislature maximum power over the makeup of the courts amounts to a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary and threatens a fundamental shift in the separation of powers in Pennsylvania. Judicial independence is critical because, unlike the executive and legislative branches that represent constituents’ policy preferences when making decisions, the judiciary impartially interprets and applies the law objectively. Judges should be chosen because of their understanding of the law and the Constitution, not based on some arbitrary geographic boundary.

Currently, each Pennsylvania voter has a say in choosing the 31 judges and justices who serve on our statewide courts. But this scheme to carve the judiciary into geographic districts would rob nine million PA voters of their ability to select and provide a check on every judge sitting on a statewide court — the largest disenfranchisement of Pennsylvania voters in history. If judges are going to be elected, all Pennsylvanians should be able to cast their ballot for every judge and justice.

If the bill passes, the question of whether or not to amend the constitution will be put before voters in the subsequent election. Last week, the legislature missed the deadline to ensure that the question is on the ballot for the primary election on May 18.

Any attempt to remake the courts as entities responsive and beholden to the views of constituents undermines the ability to protect civil rights and civil liberties against the tyranny of the political majority, in particular the civil liberties of people of color and vulnerable communities.

This proposed constitutional amendment is not based on some high-minded ideals. Rather, it’s a craven and punitive power-grab by some extreme lawmakers who disapprove of recent court decisions.

We can’t let a few rogue legislators prevent voters from having a say in the selection or retention of the very judges that decide cases about their lives and communities. Contact your state representative and urge them to oppose H.B.38.

Elizabeth Randol is the legislative director at ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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