East Falls Now Article: Danger Will Robinson!

If you are my peer, or are a Lost In Space aficionado, you may recognize the oft heard refrain of the robot who served as companion and guardian to the young Will Robinson. It is a refrain that is still used to this day - or at least it is a phrase that I use when the occasion warrants - that occasion being a significant and serious mistake about to occur, a real disaster, actually.

In this instance I am sounding the alarm about judicial gerrymandering.  You may have heard me talk about, write about, conduct town halls on and post on social media about gerrymandering and the need for redistricting reform.  THAT redistricting reform is about redrawing, every 10 years, the district boundaries for congressional, state representative and state senate districts.  Historically, those districts have been drawn to favor the majority party in control when this event occurs. These gerrymandered district boundaries create less than competitive races for these offices and contribute mightily to gridlock and polarization at the state and federal level because the successful candidates are often beholden to an ideological extreme to get and stay in office.

I have worked diligently to support legislation and advocates’ efforts to create an independent redistricting commission; independent of the Pennsylvania general Assembly that currently controls the process from end to end.  Districts will be redrawn this year, and our efforts to create an independent commission were not successful.  We now serve as vigilant watchdogs to encourage transparency and fairness in this redistricting process that will commence later this year.

BUT, before we even get underway with the ‘usual ’redistricting, we are being confronted with an immediate and credible threat of judicial gerrymandering.  The judges who sit on the appellate courts (Commonwealth, Superior and PA Supreme) are currently elected through statewide races.  Eligible voters have the opportunity to vote for every judge running for every open seat on each of these courts.  Subsequently, eligible voters also vote for retention of the judges that sit on those courts.

Under HB38, a constitutional amendment, eligible voters would only be permitted to vote for judges running from a particular geographic district; effectively limiting a voter to one judge per court per district. YIKES!  Talk about politicizing the process.  Since HB38 is a constitutional amendment, after it goes through both the PA House and Senate chambers in two successive sessions, it goes to the voters to ultimately decide whether or not our constitution will be amended.  HB38 is on the fast track, having come out of the House Judiciary Committee by one vote, on January 13th our first week of the new session.  This constitutional amendment passed in the previous session as HB196 with no votes to spare in the House or Senate. By the way, there have been no public hearings on this bill.

The language of the bill is vague in reference to exactly how this amendment will be operationalized- it basically states the General Assembly will figure it out – a concerning proposition to say the least.

The number of organizations that have come out against this bill is astounding. However, if these organizations cannot convince sufficient members to vote in the negative, we will have our work cut out for us to educate voters about this amendment.  Voters could be asked to vote as early as the May primary depending on whether or not HB38 gets through both chambers before mid-March.

If this constitutional amendment is headed to the May ballot, be assured that I will hold a town hall to answer questions. My January 23rd town hall included this topic, however, a more intense review will be needed to inform voters, including why some members of the General Assembly think this is a good idea.

I do not think this is a good idea, as it is a further opportunity for elected officials to draw the district lines for our appellate court judges.  We know the disastrous effects of gerrymandering; adding the courts to this process would be a mistake.  DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!