by Lowman S. Henry
Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal
The myth has been exposed.
The judicial branch of state government is no different than the legislative and executive branches. Too much power corrupts, and actions are motivated more by political interests than by the public interest.
That partisan politics pervades Pennsylvania’s statewide judiciary was laid bare by the recent re-gerrymandering of the commonwealth’s congressional districts. In what amounted to a flagrant violation of both the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions, a redistricting plan was forced upon voters by judicial fiat.
Under the guise of claims they were correcting an excessive gerrymander, the justices played their role in an elaborate nationwide scheme to force the redraw of district maps in key states. The collusion began at the national level, was put into place when massive labor union campaign donations financed a Democratic takeover of the high court in the 2015 elections, Left-leaning interest groups filed suit, and the justices then issued an unprecedented series of rulings culminating in the institution of a nicer looking, but more highly gerrymandered map favorable to Democrats.
Did the justices right a wrong, or did they overstep their authority? The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. conducts a semi-annual Keystone Business Climate Survey of business owners and chief executive officers. In the Spring 2018 survey conducted during the month of March a total of 61% said the court overstepped its authority, 22% think it righted a wrong.
Speaking of wrong, three seats on the state Supreme Court were open in 2015 because of mis-deeds that forced the resignation of three justices. One was convicted of using taxpayer-paid staff to campaign, one was accused of attempting to blackmail a fellow justice, and another viewed material on his office computer that was, shall we say, not suitable for work.
The judiciary’s carefully cultivated aura of superiority now lies in tatters on the courtroom floor. Using that aura, judges and justices have been given certain perks not afforded the other two branches of state government. They get ten year terms, making them unaccountable to voters. They run for retention rather than for re-election, a process that but once has resulted in jurists being retained.
Should judges and justices serve ten year terms, or should the length of those terms be reduced? Twenty-five percent of respondents to the Spring 2018 Keystone Business Climate Survey said they should continue to serve ten year terms. However, 67% think shorter terms are in order. Thirty-six percent supports giving judges and justices six year terms, 31% think they should serve four year terms.
A similar margin supports doing away with retention elections. Seventy-two percent think judges and justices should stand for re-election, 21% say the current retention system should itself be retained.
Pennsylvania has three appellate courts the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court. Judges and justices on these courts are currently elected by voters statewide. These elections are low profile with voters often going into the polls having little or no knowledge of the candidates or their qualifications.
Two potential reforms have been proposed. One is a so called “merit selection” process in which voters would have no say in the selection of judges and justices who would then be picked by power brokers in the other two branches of government. The other would be to elect appellate court jurists by region or by district such as we do with members of congress and the state legislature.
Merit selection received little support from the business owners and CEOs with only 12% favoring such a process. Twenty-three percent said we should continue to elect judges and justices in a statewide election. A solid majority, 58% said they favor electing jurists by district.
The general trend of the Keystone Business Climate Survey results relative to the court was to support giving voters more say in holding appellate court judges and justices accountable. Those Supreme Court justices who staged the re-districting coup won’t stand for retention for eight years. The only accountability mechanism currently available is impeachment by a 46% to 32% margin survey respondents said the legislature should impeach the offending justices.
Although some members of the General Assembly have proposed doing just that it won’t happen. Why? Because such a move requires political courage; and political courage in Pennsylvania is about as rare as unicorns and purple squirrels.