Presidential election hostilities in Pa. may fuel fight over courts

The angst, anger and hostility over Pennsylvania’s presidential election result will flow past New Year’s Day.

Republicans who control the state Legislature could use the first weeks of 2021 to fast-track a constitutional amendment that would remake the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court after Republicans and President Donald Trump accused the court of acting illegally or, baselessly, conspiring to steal the election.

That prospect is propelling a constellation of liberal groups, good-government groups, labor unions and others to organize against the proposed amendment, and stoking fears of an expensive public campaign fueled by dark money for control of the battleground state’s highest court.

As early as May 18’s primary election, Pennsylvania voters could be asked to overhaul how they elect state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges. The amendment would end the practice of judicial candidates running for 10-year terms in statewide elections and, instead, sort those seats into districts equal in population where candidates must live.

It would seem to guarantee a new set of faces that Republican lawmakers contend will provide better geographical diversity — and better court rulings.

Such a change almost assuredly would cut short the high court’s 5-2 Democratic majority that might otherwise last well beyond 2030.

For one, four high court justices hail from Pittsburgh, but carving up the state into districts would likely leave room for just one justice from the area. Meanwhile, heavily Democratic areas could be squeezed into two or three districts, leaving a majority that favor Republican candidates.

It is a Republican power grab that smacks of payback, some opponents say, and a takeover of one independent branch of government by another.

Some nonpartisan organizations see it as a dangerous politicization of the court.

“It’s hard to understand what principle of good governance this amendment is supposed to reflect,” said David Thornburg, the president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “We have one constitution in this commonwealth and we should be choosing judges to consider the impact of their decisions on the entire state.”

Democrats and their allies view the May primary as an ideal opportunity for Republicans: a low-turnout, off-year primary typically favors Republicans, they say.

Republicans say they have not yet had caucus meetings to determine a plan of action.

“I am definitely interested in it as long as my caucus is interested in looking at a judicial reform measure,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland. “I think this Supreme Court, with as political as the majority has been, needs to be reevaluated in how we do things.”

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