January 9, 2020
Chaos at the Capitol and in Harrisburg

Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol in D.C. was the culmination of the partisan intransigence that has been building for years and was on painful display at the PA Capitol on Monday, when Senate Republicans refused to seat Western PA Democrat Sen. Jim Brewster, whose certified 69-vote victory is still being challenged in U.S. court—then voted to remove Lt. Gov. John Fetterman from the speaker’s dais after Fetterman tried to swear in Brewster anyway. “I broke the rules. They were breaking the law,” Fetterman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. GOP candidate Nicole Ziccarelli’s suit does raise issues of voting-rule uniformity that need to be resolved, but Monday’s antics didn’t do that. They just deepened the divide even further.
  • Speaking of voting laws—and intransigence: An Inquirer article on the various proposals to change PA election laws ran in the Post-Gazette under the headline “Everybody wants to change Pennsylvania election law, but nobody trusts each other.”
  • What to do? The Philadelphia Citizen offers 17 ways to make our democracy stronger.
Judicial elections by districts: A bad idea

One issue that could come up early in this PA legislative session is the proposed Constitutional amendment to elect state judges from districts drawn by legislators—nine for Commonwealth Court, 15 for Superior Court and seven for Supreme Court—rather than statewide. The proposal is a massively bad idea that would turn judges into politicians who would need to cater to their own constituents rather than the state as a whole. The districts could be gerrymandered. And the proposal itself is vague and perhaps unconstitutional; if it passes it will certainly be litigated. Republican pique over recent decisions by the D-dominated Supreme Court is behind the move, but elections have a way of changing partisan makeup over time. We have one constitution in this commonwealth, and we should be choosing judges to consider the impact of their decisions on the entire state.
  • It’s getting late early: Since the measure—which can’t be vetoed by the Governor—first passed the General Assembly last year, a quick legislative approval could mean that it goes to voters in the May primary.
  • Fight judicial gerrymandering: Numerous groups are in opposition, including Seventy. Join grassroots efforts by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Fair Districts PA and Common Cause PA.
  • Judges on the ballot in May: This year’s judicial elections include the race to succeed Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (R), who will reach the mandatory retirement age, 75, in 2021.
New year; old rules

No one will be surprised if the judicial-district amendment clears the General Assembly quickly because it’s backed by the GOP leadership. But most bills don’t have such a glide path, and even those with broad bipartisan support, such as a 2017 redistricting-reform bill that had 110 House co-sponsors, never made it to the floor for a vote. Of course, voters did elect more Republicans than Democrats to the legislature in November, and one of their perks is control over the rules under which the legislative bodies operate, and one of those rules gives committee chairs almost complete power over which bills to consider. Both houses adopted their rules for the 2021-22 session Tuesday, and the best thing that can be said about it is that the House approved “bipartisan tweaks,” as the PA Capital-Star put it
  • What’s missing? Fair Districts PA wants a mechanism to ensure that bills with “strong public support” receive a vote in committee or on the floor. Sounds reasonable to us.
In memoriam
All of us at the Committee of Seventy were deeply saddened by the passing last Thursday of Dick Thornburgh, the father of our CEO, David Thornburgh. Governor of PA from 1978 to 1987, and U.S. Attorney General from 1988 to 1991, the elder Thornburgh practiced a brand of civil and problem-solving politics that the state and country sorely needs today.
On our radar
Regrets? He has a few: Philly mayor Jim Kenney recalls a year we’d all rather forget in an interview with Billy Penn.
Meet the new School Board members: Mayor Kenney appointed businesswoman Lisa Salley, attorney Reginald Streater and Cecelia Thompson, an advocate for special-needs students, to fill the three vacancies on the School District of Philadelphia’s Board of Education. WHYY has thumbnail bios of the three, who still must be confirmed by Council.
“Projected dates are fluid”: The PA Capital-Star tracks the uncertain status of the 2020 Census.
Safety or security: Spotlight PA examines how a post-9/11 law meant to keep PA’s public-utility infrastructure safe from terrorists has handcuffed the state’s Office of Open Records and could hide potential threats from pipelines.
Fitzpatrick’s kitchen sink: Bucks County Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R) introduced three Constitutional amendments and four bills that would (among other things) set Congressional term limits, require a balanced federal budget, set up independent redistricting commissions, set uniform mail-in-voting standards and require voter ID.
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