Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

LNP -Pennsylvania's appellate judges should be selected on merit, not by political party and not by geography

Recommended Posts



Pennsylvania Sen. Ryan Aument, of Landisville, wants appellate judges in the state Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts to run for their seats in specific regions rather than in statewide races. His proposal would see the state carved into seven “judicial districts,” each “as nearly equal in population as practicable.” Aument told LNP’s Sam Janesch that the change would “diversify” the courts by electing more judges from outside the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas. “It’s important in ensuring that all Pennsylvanians are represented on our courts,” Aument said.

In our experience, Aument has been an effective and reform-minded lawmaker in a state Capitol that badly needs effectiveness and reform.

But he’s lost us on his latest proposal.

Aument told LNP’s Janesch that his proposal to establish judicial districts was inspired by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to throw out the old congressional districts and draw new ones. He said he had “serious concerns” about the “overreach” by the court when it imposed its own congressional map — a map that lawmakers are constitutionally tasked to draw.

We’ve written repeatedly that it was less than ideal that the state Supreme Court — and in particular, the justices who were elected as Democrats — devised the imposed map (it will be used until a new map is drawn after the 2020 census). But the previous map, drawn by Republicans in 2011, was so ridiculously gerrymandered that it had become a national joke. And we oppose gerrymandering on principle, whether it’s done by Republicans in Pennsylvania or by Democrats in Maryland.

It simply doesn’t look good that Aument pegged his proposal to the court’s redistricting decision, which enraged some of his colleagues so much they’re seeking to impeach the justices responsible.

Aument insisted that his proposal is not “some vindictive effort to punish the court,” he said. “It’s a topic that I’ve been interested in.”

It sure looks like revenge, though.

Christine Donohue, Debra McCloskey Todd, David Wecht and Kevin Dougherty are the state Supreme Court justices who voted for the new congressional map; they all were elected as Democrats. Justice Max Baer — who also ran as a Democrat — dissented because he thought it was unwise to impose a new map so close to the May primary.

Donohue, Todd, Wecht and Baer are from the Pittsburgh area. Dougherty is from Philadelphia.

So Aument comes off as a bit disingenuous when he says he’s merely seeking geographical diversity on the state’s appellate courts.

He told LNP that electing more judges from other areas “would bring an important perspective” in cases — such as those related to school funding or property taxes — that can have varied implications by region.

But appellate judges aren’t supposed to represent the regions from which they hail, in the way that members of the General Assembly do. Judges are supposed to rule according to state law, as set out in the state constitution.

So we’re with Mary F. Platt, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, who said in a statement, “We need the best appellate court judges and justices without regard to where they live or practice.”

Aument’s proposal explicitly would give the General Assembly the power to establish the state’s seven judicial districts — thereby handing whichever party is in power yet another opportunity for gerrymandering.

We have another concern about his proposal — it could muddle a better proposal.

We support House Bill 111, proposed by Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom. Cutler’s bill would amend the state constitution and replace statewide judicial elections with a merit selection process involving a 13-member nominating commission.

That commission would consist of five gubernatorial appointees and eight appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the Legislature — with restrictions on the number of lawyers and the number of members from the same county and party. Elected or appointed public officials, employees of the commonwealth and political party officials would be barred from serving on that commission.

The process Cutler has laid out for appointing judges on merit — not by party, not by geography — is one that we think will go a long way in removing politics from judicial elections, where they have no place.

Cutler’s bill has been getting some traction of late, but the process it needs to take is complicated; it needs to pass in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before it goes to voters for final approval.

Aument told LNP he supports Cutler’s merit-selection system and would be open to joining the proposals. But that could gum up the works, and halt the progress Cutler has made.

And that would be a shame.

Passing genuine reform in Pennsylvania can be a crushing grind, filled with setbacks and obstacles.

Consider what the House State Government Committee, led by Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, did earlier this month to House Bill 722.

That bipartisan bill proposed amending the state constitution to establish a citizens commission for redistricting. The bill was aimed at ending gerrymandering and making the drawing of legislative maps more sane and less partisan.

House Bill 722 had more than 100 co-sponsors, including several Republicans who represent parts of Lancaster County — Reps. Jim Cox, Mark Gillen and Steven Mentzer — and Lancaster Democrat Mike Sturla.

As Philly.com columnist John Baer noted, Metcalfe’s committee gutted the House Bill 722 and replaced it with a new bill giving “greater clout to the Legislature and less to the other branches of government, and showing citizens the door.”

Metcalfe’s reasoning? “There is no greater citizens commission than the General Assembly of this state.”

It’s as if he tries to make people want to scream.

He probably does. The Butler County Republican is known to be a flame-thrower (and fit-thrower, too, as evidenced by the one Friday over a conflict with his “liberal loser Democrat” colleagues).

Sen. Ryan Aument is not. He’s a reasonable lawmaker who seems genuinely to care about making Pennsylvania better. His proposal to establish judicial districts would not achieve that aim.

View the full article

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this