PA House committee recommends change to election of state-level judges

By Anna Schmader
February 28, 2021

The judicial and court system can get complicated and confusing if you don’t understand political jargon. House Bill 38 is particularly significant due to its proposal of a state constitutional amendment changing the way state-level judges are elected. Currently, Pennsylvania’s top-level judges are elected in statewide contests. The proposed constitutional amendment would create geographic regions from which judges would run.

“The Supreme Court” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Geoff Livingston

How the court works

The way the court system works has a particular setup where designated judicial layers hold different responsibilities. From the bottom to top it begins with the minor courts at a local level. These decide whether serious criminal cases go to the Court of Common Pleas, preliminary hearing, setting bail, and other minor cases. Next is the Courts of Common Pleas. This is where the major criminal and civil cases are heard in front of a jury. Then comes the Intermediate Appellate Courts which includes two statewide appellate courts in Pennsylvania the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. The Superior Court handles appeals in criminal and civil cases from the Courts of Common Pleas. The Commonwealth Court handles original civil actions brought by and against the Commonwealth and appeals from state agency decisions.

Finally, the Supreme Court is the highest authority on matters brought before lower courts and it hears direct appeals from lower courts’ decisions then answers requests for interventions in lower courts’ proceedings.

Why HB 38 matters

House Bill 38 would amend the state constitution so that appellate judges would be elected by regional districts rather than statewide. The PA state legislature would draw those districts, allowing political party considerations to become the basis of the supposedly non-partisan highest courts. 

House Bill 38 requires that judges live in the regions from which they are elected. It is possible that judicial candidates from sparsely populated regions might not have sufficient judicial experience to serve on the highest state courts.

This will shrink the candidate pool of judges while minimizing the type of diversity, especially for courts deciding issues with statewide implications. Going from a larger pool that’s statewide to limited respected regions could negatively impact how decisions are made or discussed. By shrinking this vote, the choices the judges will make could be increasingly more locally specific rather than considering the statewide effect these cases would have. 

“Gerrymandering” (CC BY 2.0) by

How this bill could increase the problem of gerrymandering

The practice of gerrymandering is very manipulative. In simpler terms, it is a way that political parties try to place themselves in power by shifting the political map steeply in their favor. To do this, politicians draw boundaries of legislative districts so that as many seats as possible are likely to be won by the party’s candidates.

More specifically, this is accomplished mainly through two practices commonly called “packing and cracking.” Packing and cracking go into this term since “packing” occurs when many supporters of the victim party are jammed into a small number of districts, giving them fewer wins. The remaining members of the victim party are then “cracking,” (spread) across a large number of districts so that they consistently win just under 50% of the vote. 

With gerrymandering, there also comes a challenge regarding minorities voting. People of color have significantly lower voting rates compared to white people. There are voters who believe their vote doesn’t speak loud enough so they don’t vote. Or minorities will not participate in the voting process because they believe their voice will not be heard.

Before this change is implemented, HB38 must pass through the whole legislature and be approved by the voters in an election this year.

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Anna Schmader

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