Philadelphia-area state Sens. Anthony Williams and Vincent Hughes led a chorus of Democrats expressing outrage this week over the Republican-led Senate’s redistricting overhaul, which would include Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth court districts.
Under the bill, which House members were expected to receive Wednesday, state appellate judges would be elected by district, rather than statewide, and a citizens commission would draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts.
“This notion that we want to be able to get closer to a Supreme Court justice, so they can have a glass of wine on a Friday, happy hour, go to Ruby Tuesday, hang out with all of us and be more common is ludicrous for those of us who want to protect the law,” Williams said.
Like Williams and other Democrats, Hughes said the bill simply retaliates against the state Supreme Court’s decision to redraw Pennsylvania’s congressional maps.
“We were going to have this grand, glorious conversation about redistricting reform,” Hughes said. “But the real move was to stick this piece in here because they’re not happy with the Supreme Court’s decision around congressional redistricting.”
If the Republican-controlled House concurs, the measure would amend the state constitution so that state appellate judges would be elected by district. There would be seven Supreme Court districts, 15 for the Superior Court and nine for Commonwealth Court.
The bill also would create a commission of 11 citizens to draw the congressional and legislative districts. The members would be appointed by the legislature and governor. Each would have to be approved by a two-thirds legislative majority.
Under the bill, if the commissioners are unable to agree on one of three map options, the task would go to the General Assembly. If the legislature reached an impasse, the state Supreme Court would step in and pick one of the maps.
Commissioners would have to be registered with their political party for at least three years. Current and former state and federal officials and their employees would be banned.
The proposed judicial change and citizens commission would be separate ballot questions if they ultimately go before voters — so voters would be able to pick one without the other.
The sponsor of the latest amendment, Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said the bill would make representation in the courts fairer.
“Five of the seven Supreme Court Justices — over two-thirds of the justices — are from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, leaving 79 percent of our state’s population underrepresented on our state’s highest court,” Aument said.
“Taken all together, only 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are home to an appellate court judge,” he said.
Still, Democrats weren’t happy.
“Judges shouldn’t have regional affiliations,” Williams said.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, lashed out at Republicans.
“Every one of you in this room knows that the reason we are doing this today and forcing it into Senate Bill 22 is because you want to retaliate against the Supreme Court,” he said.