• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Republican state lawmakers push for judicial redistricting in Pennsylvania

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A Republican state lawmaker who supported overturning the 2020 election results is proposing a change to how Pennsylvanians elect judges, a move that would threaten the Democratic-leaning state Supreme Court. KDKA money and politics editor Jon Delano spoke with Anne-Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers on CBSN about the proposal and controversy over it.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: In local matters, there is a fight in Pennsylvania to change how voters elect judges. A Republican state lawmaker who supported overturning the 2020 presidential election results is leading the charge. If the measure makes the ballot and passes, it could give more weight to votes cast in more conservative areas and have a lasting effect on the state's Democratic-leaning Supreme Court. So Jon Delano is our Pittsburgh station KD-- KDKA's money and politics editor, and he's here now to break this down for us.

Thank you very much, Jon, for joining us. This is really, really fascinating. I think many people around the country watched as Philadelphia counted ballots, and there was legal challenge after legal challenge here in Pennsylvania over the election results, and judges very quickly turned those legal challenges down, even judges that were appointed by the Trump administration. So Jon, can you explain this proposal, and who is pushing for it and how did it come to be?

JON DELANO: Well, first off, Anne-Marie and Vlad, always good to be with you, and thank you for your interest in Pennsylvania, which has always most unusual and peculiar politics. Hey, there's no question that the issue at stake here is control of the state Supreme Court. We have three appellate courts and for decades, they've been controlled by the Republicans, but a few years ago, the Democrats took control of the state Supreme Court by a five to two margin.

In Pennsylvania, we elect our appellate court judges, and we elect them on a party line basis. So it's not nonpartisan at all, so it becomes very political. When the Democrats took control, two things happened. One, they threw out a Republican gerrymander of congressional districts, that even though the state is majority Democrat, gave 12 of the Congressional seats to the Republicans. The Democratic Supreme Court threw it out, and then Anne-Marie, you just noted the other issue, which was after the voting on November 3 in Pennsylvania, they rejected all the Trump challenges to the election in Pennsylvania.

Now, we have Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg, and they control the state house and the state Senate, and they have been strong Trump supporters throughout, they're saying we cannot elect our judges statewide because it gives too much preference, they say, to Philadelphia and to Pittsburgh, major Democratic cities. So what they want to do is to carve up the state into seven judicial districts, knowing that many of those judicial districts will be in Trump territory in this, really in the rural parts of Pennsylvania, and thereby take control of the state Supreme Court. That's it in a nutshell.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Wow, so Jon, so where, what will it take to get it on the ballot, I guess?

JON DELANO: Yeah. Yeah, Vlad, that's a great question, because it's a constitutional amendment. They can't just do this willy nilly in the legislature. They have to present it to the voters. The legislature has already approved it once. They have to approve it a second time, and we are awaiting a vote on that.

Now, my sources tell me that there's been a little hiccup, because there are some Republican lawmakers who feel this really compromises, quote, "judicial independence." And because of that, the Republican leadership does not yet have the votes to pass this out of the state house, and if it doesn't pass out of the state house in the next few weeks, it will not be on the May primary ballot. Now, of course, they could still try to get it enacted in time for the November ballot, but at this stage, all bets are off. I will tell you that the trial lawyers in Pennsylvania are doing everything they can to kill this piece of, this constitutional amendment, and they're strong among not only Democrats but Republicans as well.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Well, I can imagine that Democrats in Pennsylvania are probably working that little wedge amongst Republicans and trying to make it a little wider. They're calling this move basically an attempt at gerrymandering the courts. What else are Democrats doing?

JON DELANO: Well, of course, there have been efforts to, there are groups out there that have really started to put out videos about what they call judicial gerrymandering, Anne-Marie, you have the right term. It's judicial gerrymandering in their words, and they have organized efforts. I've seen some streaming videos that oppose this. They're on Facebook. They're trying to organize efforts that basically say this will compromise the judicial independence of the Supreme Court and also make it more political.

Now, it's political as it is, because you run as a Republican or you run as a Democrat, but it's likely to be even more political if you're beholden only to the constituents in a certain part of the state. You know, interpreting the laws, interpreting the Constitution does not really depend on where in the state you live, but if you are responsible to a certain constituency as a justice of the Supreme Court, you might care more about how Erie County feels or Lackawanna County or Allegheny or Philadelphia or wherever you come from, and that's not really the way, they argue, it's supposed to be when you elect judges to the high court.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So Jon, Anne-Marie pointed out something that's kind of interesting. She was sort of wondering where there-- Democrats might be able to, sort of, drive a wedge between Republicans who support this and some who don't. So you've reported that not every Republican in Pennsylvania supports this idea. Explain why.

JON DELANO: Well, I think the real argument comes down to judicial independence. One of the state representatives from this area who is on the judiciary committee and voted against-- she was one of two Republicans to vote against the Republican leadership proposal, and her name is State Representative Natalie Mihalek and I've interviewed her. She's a lawyer. She, actually, I believe was a prosecutor at one time, and she feels very strongly that we shouldn't be meddling and throwing more politics into the court.

Sure, there's always politics, and yes, it's controlled by the Democrats right now, but this state is so up for grabs that, you know, in another year or two it could be controlled by Republicans, and so you don't really try to put a bill together or amendment changing the basic documents of the Constitution by really tinkering with how we elect state Supreme Court justices. And by the way, this would also apply to the other appellate courts, too. So I think there are some Republicans who really don't want to mess with the system we've had for so many years, and frankly, something like this is, it does threaten, or at least it seems to me at least as an analyst that this is going to make everything even more political than it is already.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Say it ain't so. Jon Delano. Always great to talk to you, my friend. I love when we do these deep dives into local matters of our CBS station, KDKA.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: We need to talk, Vlad, we need to have Jon back on to talk about the number of Republicans in Pennsylvania that are leaving the party and what he thinks is at the root of that.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: That is fascinating. I would love to dig into that.

JON DELANO: I'll come back any time you want, guys. I love talking to you, and that is a big story, by the way, Anne-Marie. That's a big story, so just give me a buzz any time.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: We absolutely will. Jon Delano of our station KDKA in Pittsburgh. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

JON DELANO: Thank you all.