Republicans in Harrisburg have apparently gotten tired of state courts rejecting their undemocratic power grabs. They were furious at the 2018 Supreme Court decision that caused PA’s gerrymandered Congressional districts to be redrawn more fairly. No doubt they were also frustrated by outgoing President Trump’s nearly-unbroken string of court losses as he tried to challenge the election results in Pennsylvania and other states.
As a result, state legislators are introducing a new gambit: gerrymandering the judiciary.
Today, judges to Pennsylvania’s higher courts (consisting of the PA Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Courts) are elected at-large; candidates stand for statewide election, and the races for these judicial seats appear on the ballot everywhere in the state. In other words, no matter where you live, you can vote in every race for seats on these higher courts. (Whether electing judges is a good idea is an issue for another time).
These at-large elections allow Democrats to win judicial races by bringing to bear the large majorities of Democratic voters in key areas such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and surrounding counties. The Republican proposal (which enjoys bipartisan opposition in the state legislature) is to divide the state into judicial districts, akin to the state’s Congressional, State Senate and State House districts. Voters in Philadelphia and surroundings would likely have their votes “packed” into a few judicial districts, or “cracked” among several. The goal, of course, would be to create Republican majorities on the higher courts.
The supporters of this move are aiming for nothing less than an amendment to the state constitution. Unlike other types of legislation, bills to amend the state constitution are NOT subject to gubernatorial veto. To amend the Pennsylvania Constitution, a resolution must pass both chambers of the legislature by simple majority in consecutive legislative sessions (that is, the bill must pass twice) and then, after being advertised in newspapers in every Pennsylvania county, be approved by voters as a ballot question.
Harrisburg Republicans have the votes to ram these measures through the state house chambers, and they are doing so. The last defense in this case is not the governor, but the voting public.
This measure could appear on a ballot as soon as the May primary (an election in which turnout is usually low and a small number of committed zealots can tip the scales in either direction).
Fair Districts PA has much more information on the proposal and why it is bad.
The Philadelphia Bar Association also strongly opposes the bill.