Several advocacy groups are pulling their support for a redistricting bill making its way through the state legislature. On Tuesday, Republicans in the state Senate added an amendment to Senate Bill 22 that would transform the way state judges are elected in Pennsylvania.
The amendment from Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County, proposed the creation of judicial districts across the state, and making the process more similar to how legislators and members of congress are elected. Pennsylvania state judges on the State Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court are currently elected by voters statewide. Supporters of the amendment, who are mostly Republicans, point out that a disproportionate number of state judges are from Allegheny and Philadelphia counties, leaving much of the state unrepresented on the courts. Some opponents of the proposal, including Senate Democrats and special interest groups, say the legislature has not had sufficient time to have an informed debate, while others reject the proposal on its merits.
Prior to the introduction of Aument’s amendment, interest groups had been divided over the bill. As originally written, it would have established a citizens redistricting commission, with four Democrat, four Republican, and three Independent/minor party members randomly selected from a pool of eligible applicants. An amendment introduced by Republican Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon would require that the commission’s members be appointed by politicians.
Specifically, the majority and minority leaders of the State Senate and House of Representatives would each appoint two members from their political parties and the governor would appoint three independent or third-party citizens. Two-thirds of the state legislature would have to give final approval for all commission members.
Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan redistricting reform advocacy organization, was among the groups favoring the bill in that form, but the group revoked its support Tuesday afternoon. The group’s chair, Carol Kuniholm, said the bill was an improvement over the status quo and she was confident the commission members would be properly screened in order to avoid selecting individuals with a "high partisan interest." But after the Aument amendment, Fair Districts PA pulled their backing of the bill, calling it "a betrayal of public trust."
— Fair Districts PA (@FairDistrictsPA) June 12, 2018
Fair Districts PA was not the only interest group to withdraw support following the addition of Tuesday's judicial districts amendment, according to a tweet from Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Lai.
Other groups, like the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, supported the bill in its original form, but since the addition of the Folmer amendment have believed that the bill is not a strong enough reform measure. Mark Stier, the center’s director, said that the proposal gives too much control to the general assembly.
“It enables the General Assembly to draw lines that benefit themselves,” Stier said. “That’s just wrong. It’s not an improvement at all.”
After the judicial districts amendment, the center has doubled down on their opposition to the bill.
So, let's just be clear on one thing: The addition of judicial gerrymandering to SB22 wasn't a betrayal of the Folmer plan / SB22. It has the same end as the Folmer plan / SB22: to change the rules to give Republicans... https://t.co/EOyqWpwcJn
— PA Budget and Policy (@PBPC) June 13, 2018
Even though a supermajority of the legislature would be required to approve commission members, Stier said he fears that this precaution would not be enough to avoid maps that heavily favor one political party over the other.
The State Senate is expected to vote on the bill today.