WPTLA Statement on Gerrymandering
The Western Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association opposes a proposal pending in the Pennsylvania legislature numbered as HB38. HB38 is a proposed constitutional amendment borne out of political opposition to our Commonwealth’s elected and independent judiciary. Put simply, HB38 is a politically motivated attempt by certain members of our legislature to exert control and influence over an independent branch of government designed to remain co-equal under the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Appellate judges and justices preside over cases appealed from the lower trial courts, rendering pivotal decisions and legal interpretations which can directly impact the legal affairs of every individual and organization in our Commonwealth. Currently, every Pennsylvanian registered to vote can vote for each judge or justice who sits on an appellate or “high” court. HB38 would end the way appellate judges and justices have long been elected by the people of this Commonwealth. Under HB38, voters would be restricted to voting for only one judge in one of seven (7) Supreme Court districts, fifteen (15) Superior Court districts, and nine (9) Commonwealth Court districts. The long-standing Republican majorities in the PA legislature would have control over how each separate, geographical district is drawn. Voters in each district would vote for one Supreme Court Justice, one Superior Court judge, and one Commonwealth Court judge.
If this partisan amendment becomes part of the Pennsylvania Constitution the laws of our Commonwealth will be interpreted based upon the bias and the whims of the political party in power. The impartiality and independence of our judiciary will be lost if our Commonwealth is divided into separate judicial districts. For example, appellate court justices or judges would be held accountable only by voters from their own district. If justices or judges are faced with decisions that may or may not be popular in their local district, they may receive local pressure to choose a certain outcome regardless of whether it is the correct and just decision. The goal of the amendment is to elect judges whose decisions are likely to be in line with the party that controls the legislature.
Because HB38 permits the legislature to re-draw the boundaries of the judicial districts every 10 years, the political party in power would have the final say over whether a particular judge or justice is elected to the bench. If a judiciary district starts to resemble the political agenda of the minority party, the majority party can redraw the judicial district. Under HB38, the political party that controls Pennsylvania’s legislature will be sure to redraw the judicial districts to capture enough voters to assure their hand-picked justices or judges get the votes they need to win the election.
Our role as trial lawyers is not much different from the role of a Pennsylvania senator or legislator. Trial lawyers argue the positions that are best for their clients. Politicians argue for the laws that a majority of the people in their districts will support. Yet, as trial lawyers we know our civil justice system only works because an independent judge will hear the opposing legal arguments and render an impartial decision.
Our legal system depends on legitimacy and the confidence of the people. The Courts have accomplished this by avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. By attempting to subject our judges to political influence, the legislature threatens the confidence of the people that the Courts will be fair and impartial. In doing so, the legislature ultimately threatens the Rule of Law and social order in our Commonwealth.
We encourage our members and clients to contact their Pennsylvania representative or senator. Let them hear your voice in opposition to HB38. You can find the name and contact information for your district’s state legislator here.