Judges on Pennsylvania’s three appeals courts are elected at large, on a statewide basis. Lebanon County Representative Russ Diamond (R-102) thinks that system has some problems, and he wants to fix them.
Many voters find that they are lucky if they recognize any candidate names for these offices, much less actually know anything about their various platforms.
One reason is that judicial candidates still have restrictions on what they can say regarding how they would rule in specific cases that may come before them.
But Diamond sees a bigger problem.
Ballots are frequently dominated by candidates from Pennsylvania’s largest urban areas, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia. This, he maintains, has led to a disproportionate number of judges from those two areas getting elected to Pennsylvania’s three highest courts.
The numbers seem to back him up. Of the 28 judges currently on the three courts, 17 appear to be from the two big counties, according to their official biographies. That’s about 61%, yet the combined population of Philadelphia and Allegheny County is only about 22% of Pennsylvania’s population, according to the latest available estimates.
To correct the imbalance, Diamond wants to elect state appeals court judges by districts, rather than statewide. This will require voters to approve changes to Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Diamond has introduced House Bill 196 to put the question on the ballot.
Diamond’s plan would have no effect on electing local county judges who serve on Courts of Common Pleas.
In a recent interview, Diamond couldn’t point to any particular case or ruling where a small county citizen involved in a lawsuit was treated unfairly by urban appeals judges, but he believes the composition of these courts should be distributed more evenly, and that insuring a certain amount of small county perspective would benefit rural areas.
If Diamond’s plan succeeds, Pennsylvania’s seven justice Supreme Court, the state’s highest, would be elected from seven districts.
The Superior Court, currently 12 judges, and the Commonwealth Court, currently nine judges, would each be elected from an unspecified number of districts, to be set by the General Assembly, with the “advice and consent” of the Supreme Court.
The General Assembly would pick the number of judicial election districts for the Superior and Commonwealth courts, and it would set the boundaries for all three, subject only to requirements that they be “. . . composed of compact and contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable . . .” and “[u]nless absolutely necessary, no county, city, incorporated town, borough, township or ward may be divided in forming a judicial district.”
Diamond does not believe that allowing the often highly partisan General Assembly to draw districts is likely to lead to gerrymandering benefiting whatever party happens to be in the majority.
“Any redistricting process,” said Diamond, “unless it is completed with an algorithm completely blind to anything except raw population counts and county/municipal boundaries, runs the risk of political dabbling.”
And while Diamond acknowledges that no method of picking judges—statewide elections, district elections, or merit selection—can completely remove politics from the process, “due to the length of [appeals court judges’] terms and the retention process . . . ” he does not think his proposal will tempt judges to favor their district’s constituents.
Judges on all three appeals courts are elected for ten year terms, and can win additional terms in simple yes/no retention elections.
Diamond does not believe that the change would inject more politicking into races for appellate court seats. “The only thing a regional election system injects into our appellate courts is the vast diversity of our Commonwealth, on multiple different fronts.”
However, not everyone agrees that district elections won’t jeopardize judicial independence.
Pennsylvanians For Modern Courts argues that Diamond’s plan is “an attempt to effect a transformation of the third branch of our government into a legislature of sorts with [judges] being expected to represent the views of their districts, views Rep. Diamond and the bill’s supporters want to insure mirror theirs more often.”
PFMC, which favors “merit selection” where the governor nominates judicial candidates subject to legislative approval, insists that “significantly reducing the pool of voters for each judicial candidate will only serve to heighten judges’ feelings and the perception of the public at large that those judges’ decisions represent the interests only of those who voted for them and/or funded their campaigns.”
Diamond is confident that HB 196 will be approved by the General Assembly and become a ballot question for Pennsylvania voters to decide, but he was uncertain as to how soon that could happen. No votes in the General Assembly are currently scheduled, but the House reconvenes Tuesday, September 17.