The nonpartisan, friendly atmosphere that has accompanied the procession of State Sen. Lisa Boscola’s redistricting reform legislation through the Pennsylvania Senate this session came to an abrupt end Tuesday when a proposed amendment became a flashpoint for partisan rancor.
That amendment by Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, introduced a substantial reconfiguration of the statewide court system, including the state Supreme Court. It would create a number of judicial districts for judgeships that are currently elected on a statewide basis, and proponents argued that the redistricting legislation was the perfect place to house such a change, since its proposed reapportionment commission would also be charged with drawing the shape of the judicial districts.
The state Supreme Court has been a subject of intense criticism since it threw out Pennsylvania’s congressional maps in January. The rejection of those maps was a move that sparked discussion in the months since then of how legislative and congressional maps are drawn and ultimately pushed Boscola’s long-stalled efforts into the spotlight. But Senate Democrats, who had praised State Government Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, for helping to shepherd Boscola’s Senate Bill 22 through to the full Senate, saw Aument’s amendment as political payback against the court justices.
Aument explained that his intent was to give voters across the state the opportunity to elect judges who can focus on their particular region, and to avoid having jurists from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh dominating the highest levels of the judicial branch.
“More than half of the members of Pennsylvania Superior Court and Commonwealth Court are from only two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which represent only 21 percent of the state’s population,” Aument said. “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 Pennsylvania’s highest court.”
Because SB22 is legislation designed to amend the state constitution, it would ultimately have to be approved by voters before going into effect. Aument drew his amendment in such a way that it would be a separate ballot item for voters – meaning that it wouldn’t drag down the original redistricting reform proposal if voters decide they don’t want to see the judicial branch reshaped.
Democratic senators who moments earlier had been praising the sense of bipartisanship around SB22 were incensed by Aument’s amendment, calling it retaliation and retribution toward the state Supreme Court for its decisions related to the electoral maps. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa painted the amendment as part of a concerted campaign to punish the high court.
“Every one of you in this room knows that the reason we’re doing this amendment today and forcing it into Senate Bill 22, is because [Republicans] want to retaliate against the courts,” Costa said during floor debate. “Weeks ago, it was, we were going to take resources from the courts. … Retaliation toward our courts has been in the mindset of folks in this chamber and in this General Assembly for many, many months now, since the Supreme Court decision.”
Sen. Daylin Leach, D-King of Prussia, insisted that while SB22 was designed to combat gerrymandering – the practice of drawing districts to ensure that the party in power can retain power regardless of voter intent – Aument’s amendment would actually introduce gerrymandering into the judicial branch, giving Republicans an opportunity to draw districts that would tilt Pennsylvania’s courts toward conservative priorities.
“A legislature controlled by Republicans in the House and the Senate, without the participation of a governor who happens to be Democratic, will draw these districts,” Leach protested. “And they will draw the districts, or they could draw the districts, the same way that the other districts were drawn. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place, allowing one political party to draw districts in a way that they find advantageous by a majority vote in order to perpetuate their power.”
Contrary to Leach’s assertion, Sen. John Gordner, R-Bloomsburg, said that the entire reasoning behind putting the courts into SB22 was to ensure that the new judicial districts would be drawn by the very same independent commission that the bill is designed to create.
“The language that is being offered by Senator Aument says that the judges and those districts shall be established consistent with the requirements for reapportionment and redistricting of the congressional districts,” Gordner said. “So if you like the portion of this bill that deals with congressional districts and think that part is fair, then this amendment says that these judicial districts should be established in the same way, that they should be consistent with the requirements for reapportionment and redistricting of the congressional districts.”
Leach insisted that in spite of Gordner and Aument’s reassurances, his reading of the amendment still left the door open for Republican leadership to dictate the boundaries of the maps.
Some of the Democratic senators argued that the amendment made the bill overly complex and risked confusing voters as to what the intent was. Boscola reminded her colleagues that congressional and legislative redistricting needs to be addressed before the 2020 Census, otherwise the state would risk having its maps drawn up once again under the same process that led to maps decried as among the most gerrymandered in the nation.
“This creates more inside baseball, more deals, more backdoor conversations and frankly, a lesser, not more open government,” said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia. “This will be a stain upon the commonwealth if is to go forward. And to suggest that the public understands what this means is to suggest that my 14-year-old child would understand what it means to drive a car, even though she has the ability to get behind the wheel and drive it.”
In the face of accusations that the Republican majority had concocted an unprecedented amendment at the last moment and had forestalled any ability to consider its implications, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman read a passage from a 1995 floor debate on a similar bill at that time.
“‘I urge all of you to support judiciary reform, support this measure, which will give voters a chance to elect the best qualified candidate for judicial posts,’” Corman read from the 1995 remarks. “‘Thank you, J. Doyle Corman Jr.’ 1995, my father, who championed this issue almost  years ago. … This is not a new issue. … This is about getting the best qualified candidates to run for these offices, not ones that have big law firms behind them who can run statewide.”
Aument’s amendment was approved on a vote of 31-18, and SB22 is set for its final vote in the Senate today.