This letter to the editor was submitted to LebTown. Read our submission policy here.
Opponents of House Bill 38, a proposed constitutional amendment to change Pennsylvania’s appellate court elections from statewide to regional affairs, have publicly fixated on a misplaced presumption of “gerrymandering” as one of the roots of their objections.
While the political manipulation of electoral maps – which was done to detrimental effect with the 2011 congressional and legislative maps – should always be a concern, it is the result of such manipulation, rather than the process itself, which injures the democratic process by having one segment of the state’s population overrepresented in the halls of government at the expense of another.
However, such results can occur even when no mapmaking is involved. On our appellate courts, Pennsylvania has had this problem for the last half century. My research into the jurists who’ve served on those courts since 1969 reveals that two counties have been overrepresented at the expense of the rest of Pennsylvania.
Individuals from Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, which contain just 21.8 percent of the state’s population, have held 56.6 percent of all appellate court seats during the last 51 years. This includes 69.7 percent of all Supreme Court justices, 59.2 percent of all Superior Court judges, and 41.9 percent of all Commonwealth Court judges.
While residents of those two counties have populated the courts at a rate nearly triple their share of population since 1969, 45 counties have not had a single resident elected or appointed to an appellate court seat during that time. It’s clear the unfortunate result of gerrymandering exists in these courts without any manipulation of maps at all. Establishing regional appellate court districts will solve this problem and give every region of Pennsylvania an equal voice on these courts.
Such regional diversity is desirable on our appellate courts for the same reason regional diversity is desirable in the General Assembly. The statewide consensus we reach to pass any law in the legislative branch should also come into play when those laws are heard on appeal and when legal precedent is being established for the future.
Opponents of HB38 lament its assignment of mapmaking to the General Assembly. However, they fail to recognize that any law establishing judicial districts and the transition from statewide to district seats will require the approval of the Governor. I foresee including the judicial branch in the conversations leading up to formulating such a law, bringing all three branches of government together in common cause at a time when such cooperation is desperately needed.
This process can be very public, transparent, and satisfying to those of us who tire of the constant bickering over maps, which has droned on for nearly a decade and strained the faith in governance of our Commonwealth. It could also serve to set an example and settle differences regarding redistricting processes for the future.
I find it ironic that some of the most vocal special interests opposing HB38 include “voter disenfranchisement” and “politicization of the courts” among their talking points. Their preferred approach to reforming our appellate courts is a “merit selection” plan which would literally disenfranchise every single voter in Pennsylvania by assigning the selection of jurists to a thirteen-member panel of politically appointed commissioners who would never have to answer to the voters.
It is also ironic that the most recent iteration of their preferred plan – HB111 during the 2019-20 legislative session – actually included regional districts, albeit only three districts which would cement the domination of Philadelphia and Allegheny counties over the rest of the state as a permanent feature of our courts.
Establishing regional appellate court districts is not a new idea intended to address a contemporary political disagreement. Rather, it is an effort to address longstanding inequities with a solution which has been discussed for over three decades. Senator J. Doyle Corman, Jr. introduced a regional plan in 1989 with his SB1300. Robert B. Surrick, a candidate for seats on both the Supreme and Superior Courts in the 1990s, also championed the idea.
Governor Wolf recently claimed HB38 is part of a plan “to subvert democracy through amending the Constitution.” I couldn’t disagree more. Amending Pennsylvania’s constitution is the epitome of the democratic process, where the voters themselves get to adopt or reject proposed governmental reforms at the ballot box.
HB38 presents an opportunity to resolve longstanding inequities, bring the three branches of government together, and restore faith in governance. It’s time to let the People decide if they prefer fair representation and regional diversity on Pennsylvania’s appellate courts.
Russ Diamond is the state Representative for the 102nd Legislative District, which includes northern and eastern portions of Lebanon County.