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Letter to House Judiciary Committee: Oppose Judicial Districts (HB 38)

January 13, 2021

Dear Member of the House Judiciary Committee:

The Committee of Seventy has long been concerned about the flood of money in our state elections, including those for seats on Pennsylvania’s courts.  As you know, the shocking sum of $21 million was spent on elections to fill the three open Supreme Court seats in 2015.

Big money in judicial elections not only contributes to the courts’ politicization but harms the public’s perception of them as impartial and independent. The proposal framed in House Bill 38, however, would break apart the judiciary into 31 different election districts and only worsen these problems while creating insidious new ones. Seventy strongly opposes this legislation.

This constitutional amendment is deeply flawed. It would:

1) Subject appellate jurists to local politics. Compelling prospective judges to run in regionalized, partisan elections would subject candidates to the pressures of both well-heeled super PACs and parochial interests. Jurists charged with interpreting the law on behalf of all Pennsylvanians should not include in their calculus the local political forces that elect them to public office.

2) Harm diversity and quality on the bench. Electing judges from regional districts would severely shrink the pool of qualified candidates while overwhelmingly prioritizing geography over race, gender, ethnic and other demographic diversity essential to a judiciary that reflects all Pennsylvanians.

3) Allow judicial gerrymandering. New judicial districts would undoubtedly be drawn to maximize partisan and other political interests at a time when big data and computing power have made the damage caused by gerrymandering exponentially greater. Lawmakers’ ability to gerrymander for partisan gain and to carve out judges who issue unfavorable opinions would be antithetical to the Commonwealth having coequal branches of government.

Geographic diversity on the court has been offered as the principal reason for this dramatic change.  Although this factor is important, it had already been addressed in a previously proposed merit-selection system with three regional districts—an appropriate and meaningful compromise to ensure jurists come from across the state.

The jarring changes dictated in House Bill 38 are, collectively, a disturbing breach of democratic constitutional design that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a power grab. To advance this amendment would only further damage Pennsylvanians’ faith in our politics and governance at a time when faith in both is in short supply. We urge you to vote NO on this legislation.

Sincerely, 

David Thornburgh
President and CEO
Committee of Seventy