Currently, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges run for election and retention in statewide races.
But, under a Republican-backed proposed Constitutional Amendment, the state would be split into regions. Justices and appeals court judges would no longer be statewide, but instead would be selected by region.
Senate majority leader Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, said representation across the commonwealth is unequal.
“Most of the judges are from Philadelphia or Allegheny County. So, this gives a chance for everyone to have some representation, which I think is what you want," Corman said.
Opponents say judges on the state courts aren’t there to represent constituents.
“By dividing up our commonwealth into judicial districts, it undermines that independence of the judiciary," said Suzanne Almeida, interim director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a government watchdog organization. "It allows people to feel like they are voting for someone who is their representative on the court, rather than voting for someone with the best qualifications.”
Almeida called it "a huge deal."
"It is a fundamental shift in the way that we choose our judges," she said. "It is taking away the ability for people to vote for all seven Supreme Court justices, all 15 Superior Court judges, all nine Commonwealth Court judges, and allowing them to vote for just one of each of those.”
The effort follows a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on legislative redistricting. The court threw out a U.S. House map created by Republican legislators, calling it gerrymandering. The court redrew the districts, and Pennsylvania went from sending 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats to Congress to a 9-9 split.
Since then, Almeida said, Republicans have been angry with the court.
Michael Dimino, a professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School and an expert on election law, thinks the focus should be on whether someone would be a good judge rather than where they live.
“If you want the voters of Pennsylvania to be able to choose the best people from across the state, then you should not disqualify someone just because that person happens to live reasonably close to someone who is already a judge," Dimino said.
A change Dimino would like to see is for the state to stop naming on the ballot the county where judicial nominees come from. He said doing that would take away an unfair advantage of those from bigger cities.
The state Senate approved the legislation to switch to regional courts in July. The House had already passed it.
Because it’s a proposed constitutional amendment, both chambers of the General Assembly will have to pass it again in the upcoming session. Then it would go to voters, in May 2021 at the earliest.