(HARRISBURG) – Senator Ryan Aument (R-36) circulated a co-sponsorship memo announcing his intent to re-introduce legislation that would guarantee that the diversity of Pennsylvania and the uniqueness of its various regions would be more accurately reflected in the election of appellate judges.
Aument’s legislation, which would require approval of Pennsylvania’s voters, would divide the Commonwealth into nine (9) Commonwealth Court districts, fifteen (15) Superior Court districts, and seven (7) Supreme Court districts.
The judicial districts would be drawn following the redistricting principles found in the Pennsylvania Constitution, requiring populations as equal as possible in each district with compact and contiguous geographic boundaries, and would comport with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would also be consistent with any future Constitutional amendments to reform redistricting, such as the effort to establish an independent redistricting commission in Senate Bill 22.
Importantly, candidates for appellate seats would be required to reside in the district they would represent on the court.
Aument said the need to reintroduce this proposal now was further highlighted by the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion on House Resolution 836, in which the Court denied the General Assembly’s power to overturn Governor Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration. While Aument supported the passage of House Resolution 836 in the Senate, the Supreme Court’s decision effectively affirmed the legitimacy of the emergency disaster declaration, ensuring all aspects of it – including executive orders and guidance to businesses, individuals, and schools – remain in place until the Governor decides Pennsylvania is no longer in a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 global pandemic or the General Assembly can produce a supermajority to override him.
“I am not arguing that Pennsylvania’s statewide judges and justices should be swayed by or beholden to the court of public opinion when deciding cases, but rather that the process we use before those candidates are selected to serve in the courts ought to be reformed to ensure that all residents of Pennsylvania are represented fairly on the bench,” said Aument. “The judicial branch must certainly operate independently of public opinion; however, it is inappropriate to permit statewide judges and justices to be chosen in a way that results in disproportionate representation.”
Aument noted that a cursory review of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Commonwealth Court judge compliment in 2018 when this proposal was first developed shows that more than half of all the members of those courts were from only two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which only represent 21% of the state’s population.
He also pointed out that five of the seven Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, or over two-thirds of the justices, were from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, leaving 79% of the state’s population unrepresented on Pennsylvania’s highest court.
Taken together, only 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties were home to a Pennsylvania appellate court judge.
In order to promote greater diversity and fairness in judicial service, eleven other states (Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) select judges and justices for either some or all of their appellate courts through the use of regional judicial district elections.
“The rich diversity of our Commonwealth should be reflected in the makeup of our appellate courts,” said Aument. “Unfortunately, that simply is not the case given that our appellate court judges are elected statewide, giving some areas of the state a disproportionate and unfair electoral advantage.”
Aument’s legislation is designed to preserve the right of the people to select their judges and justices, and to ensure fair and equal representation in Pennsylvania’s judicial branch.
“My goal is simple – fairness,” said Aument “According to recent precedent set by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the opportunity to represent the people of Pennsylvania should be fair. In keeping with that laudable goal, this proposal further enshrines that principle into our Constitution so that we would no longer have disproportionate representation on the appellate judicial bench.”
The House companion to Aument’s legislation, House Bill 196 sponsored by Representative Russ Diamond (R-102), passed the House in December 2019 and is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate State Government Committee. Both the Senate and House version of this legislation propose fair judicial district reform by amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, the process for which requires final approval from Pennsylvania voters before a new amendment can be ratified.
Aument applauds Rep. Diamond and the House for their efforts on this issue and looks forward to working with them to secure final passage as soon as possible so that the proposal can be sent to the voters for consideration.
CONTACT: Ryan Boop (717) 787-4420