Briggs: Judicial gerrymandering bill rammed through committee with no public hearing

HARRISBURG, Jan. 13 – House Republicans rammed a proposed constitutional amendment that threatens the independence of the judiciary system through a newly formed committee today, with little notice and no public hearing, said state Rep. Tim Briggs, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 38 would amend the state constitution so that appellate judges would be elected by district rather than statewide. It advanced from the Judiciary Committee by a 13-12 vote.

“This bill would have a devastating effect on the balance of power in our government. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the independent role of our judiciary and further politicizes our courts. Some Republicans want to rig the system, and they want to do it quickly – without public input,” said Briggs, D-Montgomery. “A vote on legislation that would substantially change our courts should be given proper consideration and discussion. And yet, the Judiciary Committee was given less than 24 hours’ notice that our reorganization meeting would take place today and would include a vote on this constitutional amendment, which amounts to judicial gerrymandering.”

Briggs added that the bill will disenfranchise all Pennsylvania voters. Under the current system, voters have an opportunity to vote on all 31 statewide judges and justices, but under H.B. 38, voters would only have the opportunity to vote for three judges and justices. 

Today, Briggs made a motion to hold a public hearing on H.B. 38 next week, but it did not pass in a party-line vote.

As the 2021-22 legislative session began, Briggs proposed a change to House rules that would require the legislature hold a public hearing on any proposed constitutional amendment. The change was not included in the new rules, so Briggs has reintroduced a resolution to make such a change.

“The framers of our state constitution recognized that amendments should not be taken lightly,” Briggs said. “We in the General Assembly should also recognize the gravity of this responsibility and ensure potential amendments get the deliberation they deserve.”

Constitutional amendments must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before going to voters in a referendum. A bill identical to H.B. 38 passed in the 2019-20 session, so if the bill passes the full House and Senate this session, it can be placed on the ballot for voters.