Last week’s ruling by Pa. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, which approved the legality of a voting rights robbing law, passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled state legislature earlier this year, sets another discriminatory standard for 21st-century America.
However, Judge Simpson’s ruling isn’t a singular example of a jurist providing legality to a political party’s illegal/prejudicial effort to achieve an electoral advantage.
Simpson’s ruling simply continues a little known legacy of some Pennsylvania judges disrespecting the voting rights of Blacks in Pennsylvania — the state that hosted the birth of American democracy.
In 1837, Pennsylvania, a predominately white political party got a white judge in Bucks County to invalidate a local election it lost, ruling it was illegal for Blacks to vote despite existing state law stating otherwise.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling further robbing voting rights from Free Blacks in Pennsylvania followed that 1837 Bucks County ruling.
And, those twin judicial rulings — based more on social custom than law — provided validation for Pennsylvania’s 1838 state constitution explicitly limiting voting rights to ‘white’ men only.
“This voter ID law is a part of a concerted and continuous voter suppression effort against Blacks that started in the 1830s,” renowned expert on Pennsylvania’s Black history Charles Blockson said during an interview last week.
Blockson is an author and founder of the internationally lauded Charles L. Blockson African-American Collection at Temple University, one of the most unique collections of its kind.
Pennsylvania, rightfully perceived as an anti-slavery state during the racially contentious pre-Civil War era, experienced numerous racist assaults and insults against its free Black population — discriminatory deprivations that many argue persist today, albeit in less blatant forms than in bygone eras.
“We forget our history,” Blockson stressed.
“A lawyer from my hometown of Norristown, John Sterigere, inserted that white-male-only clause into Pennsylvania’s 1838 constitution,” Blockson said noting how last week’s court ruling and that 1838 constitutional convention “both took place in Harrisburg” the state capital.
Lawyer Sterigere and Judge Simpson both employed similar rationales to support their positions.
Sterigere swayed 1838 constitutional convention delegates with his argument that restricting voting to white-males-only was consistent with identical restrictions in other states, irrespective of the racism explicit in those restrictions.
Simpson justified his upholding of Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law by citing court rulings in other states that upheld similar measures requiring government issued identification to vote, irrespective of the democracy-destroying wrongness of such laws.
The rulings of Judge Simpson, 1830s Bucks County Judge John Fox and 1830s Pa. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Bannister Gibson all employed application of a duplicitous ‘law-doesn’t-mean-what-it-says’ illogic.
Although Pennsylvania’s constitution, operative before 1838, granted voting rights to all tax-paying ‘Freemen’ over age 21 with two years of Pennsylvania residency, both Fox and Gibson ruled against eligible Black voters contending that free Blacks were not Freemen for electoral purposes.
Gibson, seizing Fox’s reasoning, proclaimed their ancestors settled Pennsylvania “as a community of white men” and since an “unconquerable prejudice” existed against all Blacks (slave and Free) the word freeman in Pennsylvania’s Constitution was “not potent enough to admit a free negro to suffrage … ”
Those 1837 judicial rulings plus that 1838 constitutional convention left Pennsylvania’s free Black population in the perverse posture of taxation-without-representation, the deprivation that spurred America’s War of Independence from England.
Pennsylvania’s current constitution states elections “shall be free and equal” barring the imposition of “additional qualifications on the right to vote.”
Judge Simpson did acknowledge “the inconvenience” created by the ID law especially for the elderly, the infirm, the homeless and persons unable to access the state’s offices issuing proper ID cards.
But Simpson asserted that inconvenience “does not qualify as substantially burdensome” for the majority of registered Pennsylvania voters.
Thus, according to Simpson, the state’s constitutional mandate for fair elections free of additional qualifications doesn’t really mean what it says.
The law also creates ID hurdles for eligible voters released from prison, an impediment not referenced in Simpson’s ruling.
Judge Simpson disingenuously brushed off a damning declaration made in June 2012 by the Pa. House Majority Leader who proudly confessed during a Republican Party meeting that the true intention behind the voter ID law was to help the GOP’s presidential candidate win Pennsylvania.
House Leader Mike Turzai, when listing 2012 GOP legislative accomplishments like corporate tax cuts during that June meeting, said, “Voter ID — which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win Pennsylvania — done!”
While Judge Simpson termed Turzai’s “tendentious statements” disturbing, Simpson speciously declined to “infer” that other Republican Pa. legislators “shared the boastful views” of Turzai — refusing to invalidate the law for its now acknowledged rights robbing intent.
Simpson’s ruling ignored obvious context that Turzai made his boast during a Republican Party meeting attended by some fellow GOP legislators.
Further, other Pennsylvania GOP legislators do share Turzai’s support for the law as evidenced by the law’s originator Republican Daryl Metcalfe and 49 other GOP legislators filing an amicus brief in Simpson’s court backing the law.
“We know the reason for this law,” Charles Blockson said. “We have a Black president!”
One week before Judge Simpson’s ruling claiming the controversial voter ID law was “nondiscriminatory,” critics of that law released a disturbing study documenting that law’s discriminatory impact in Philadelphia.
A conclusion of that study stated “African-American and Latino communities are disproportionately affected by the voter ID law …”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship program.