January 11, 2022
We are writing today on behalf of our 36,000 members and supporters across Pennsylvania to urge you to oppose House Bill 38 (HB 38). House Bill 38 would create a legislature-driven redistricting scheme for appellate courts in Pennsylvania – a direct affront to the idea of an independent judiciary. This is not the first time we have expressed our opposition. Indeed, Common Cause has long been a supporter of judicial independence, and more specifically has opposed judicial districts since their introduction.
The role of the judiciary is to decide cases based on the law and the facts in the cases that come in front of them, not to provide political representation for Pennsylvanians in a specific region. Partisan elections by judicial districts subvert the role of the judiciary and encroach on the roles of the other two branches of government.
The idea of fair and impartial courts is one of the foundational principles of our democracy. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. All of us, regardless of zip code and political affiliation, have a vested interest in ensuring that our judiciary remains as removed as possible from partisan politics. Unlike representation in the legislature, where local needs are a critical part of effectively representing people in a district, there is no regional way to interpret our Constitution. We also understand the importance of ensuring that many types of diversity are represented on Pennsylvania’s courts; this amendment is not the method of achieving it.
Common Cause Pennsylvania has spent decades advocating for transparency and fairness when it comes to choosing judges and shaping our courts. Ensuring that judges are beholden only to the law, keeping courtrooms fair and accessible, and ensuring every Pennsylvanian has access to the same justice system are keys to building a strong 21st century democracy. We have long supported a merit selection system that would minimize partisan politics, promote racial, ethnic, gender, geographic and other diversity, and substantially eliminate the insidious role of money in judicial politics.
We continue to be concerned that this bill allows the General Assembly to draw judicial districts via future legislation. It is imperative that lawmakers do not have the sole power to draw district lines of any kind, including the judicial districts outlined in this constitutional amendment. Common Cause has been on the forefront of the fight for years, advocating that the power must be given to the people because the legislature has proven itself incapable of drawing districts that prioritize the needs of communities for representation.
Our court system and the constitutionally created impartiality of the third co-equal branch of government exist to uphold limitations on the other two branches, and to ensure a system of checks and balances. Courts are the first line of defense against abuses by each branch of government and exist to protect the rights of we the people. In order for our court system to effectively protect our rights, they must exist as an equal and completely separate branch of government. Legislation like this would inherently diminish the court system’s standing, in that it is the responsibility of our courts to administer justice without fear or favor.
We are also concerned that moving HB 38 off the table for second consideration at this particular moment in time could be viewed by some as a warning from the legislature to judges on the three appellate courts. Regardless of the intent, judges should never appear to be under threat from doing their sworn duty. The hard-working judges in Pennsylvania deserve better than that.
For these reasons, we continue to oppose this legislation, HB38, and urge all members of the House to vote no.