6 Reasons Why Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court Election Is Absolutely Crucial

The stakes? School funding. Gun control. Redistricting. And so much more.

Pennsylvania voters get a blessed opportunity to start cleaning up the state’s train wreck of a Supreme Court on Tuesday, when they’ll fill three of seven seats on the high court. This is a huge election, one that could have far-reaching consequences for everything from school funding, to gun control to the political balance of power in Harrisburg.

Theoretically, judges are not partisan actors. But in the real world, a judge’s party affiliation often telegraphs how they’ll rule on a wide array of politically-charged issues. That’s even more true in a state, like Pennsylvania, that elects its judges.

Right now, the court is comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats, with two empty seats. One of the sitting Republicans leaves the bench in January. It’s not an exaggeration to say the political balance of the court could be decided for a decade or more, depending on who turns out Tuesday. Justices are elected to 10-year terms, and re-election is easy. The judges chosen for the high court Tuesday will likely be with us for a very long time.

So, who’s running?

The Democrats.

And the Republicans.

Running as an independent is Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge Paul P. Panepinto, who has a “recommended” rating from the bar.

Those are your choices. Now, what’s at stake? So very much. Here are six top concerns, but this list could easily be much longer.

1. Whether PA goes red, blue or purple.

The party that calls the shots during redistricting — which is the once a decade mapping of legislative districts — gains an enormous long-term advantage over the other party. Having control over where borders are drawn and how populations are sliced up is huge. It can and does deliver disproportionate seats and power to the party that controls the process. In 2012, for instance, Democratic Congressional candidates narrowly won the statewide popular vote, but only claimed a quarter of the U.S. House seats up for grabs. Gerrymandering is a hell of a thing.

The State Supreme Court really only has a redistricting role in state House and Senate districts, not U.S. Congressional districts. But it’s redistricting role at the state-level is positively pivotal.

The party that controls the Supreme Court gets to appoint the chair of the state’s five member redistricting commission. The court’s vote is tie-breaking, as the other commission members are comprised of two Democrats and two Republicans. That’s a big deal.

The State Supreme Court is also the final word on redistricting maps. Pennsylvanians who take issue with the redistricting commission’s decision can sue, and the Court gets to hear and rule on those appeals.

Justices don’t always rule along partisan lines when it comes to redistricting (former GOP Chief Justice Ron Castille sided with the Court’s Democrats on the maps in 2012, for instance). But those are the exceptions. Party identification tends to be a strong predictor of how state Supreme Court justices will rule on divisive redistricting plans.

2. Gun control.

Nowhere is the extreme political divide between Philadelphia and much of the rest of Pennsylvania more evident than on the question of guns.

Philadelphia wants much stricter controls on guns. The GOP majority in the General Assembly, meanwhile, is reflexively and entirely opposed to even the most modest forms of local regulation of guns.

That dynamic generates a hell of a lot of lawsuits. Municipalities pass modest gun control ordinances, and the NRA sues.  State lawmakers seek to punish municipalities for their insubordination by passing laws that make the towns ripe targets for more NRA lawsuits.

In the middle, of course, are the courts. While state courts have, for the most part, affirmed the primacy of the state legislature over cities when it comes to gun control, judges have also this year pushed back on a new state law designed to make it easier for the NRA and other gun advocacy groups to sue Pennsylvania municipalities when they attempt local gun control.

The odds are excellent that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will be called on to settle more than one high stakes gun control question in the years ahead.

3. Education funding.

A lot of Philadelphians feel that the General Assembly has failed to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” as the Pennsylvania Constitution calls for.

But that’s not been the view of the state’s judiciary. Not so far, anyway. A year ago, an education funding lawsuit was filed by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on behalf of an array of plaintiffs. The suit asked for a court-order forcing the General Assembly to ensure access to high quality education.

But in April, a unanimous Commonwealth Court panel dismissed the suit, saying, in essence, this isn’t the court’s problem to fix. The plaintiffs appealed, and now the suit is before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Justices elected next week could well determine the fate of that lawsuit.

4. Voter I.D.

The Republican-backed voter ID law was declared in violation of Pennsylvania’s constitution by a Commonwealth Court judge in 2014. Then-Gov. Corbett opted not to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

But some iteration of voter ID, or other controversial voting-related legislation, could well come before Pennsylvania’s courts in the years ahead. This isn’t a far-our possibility. Voter ID bills and related voting legislation has gone to the top courts in states such as Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee and Wisconsin, to name just a few.

5. The rule of law.

Oh yeah. That.

As politicized as Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has been, the Court’s theoretical role is to impartially interpret the law. There are many, many cases that go before the Court that don’t have explicit left-right political implications. A lot of these cases are very, very important. The state needs credible, ethical jurists on its top bench. That seems obvious. But, well, it’s not been automatic, to say the least.

6. State pride.

Pennsylvania’s high court has been an outright embarrassment these past few years. There was Seamus McCaffery, the justice who retired after his fellow justices suspended him, owing to his involvement in a email porn scandal and his ensuing alleged browbeating of fellow Justice Michael Eakin. If Eakin’s name sounds familiar, that might be because he made headlines earlier this month over his own role in Porngate.

Before that, it was former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was found guilty on corruption charges. And the bitter, debilitating feud between McCaffery and former Chief Justice Castille. There was also Castille’s own questionable handling of the no-bid deal to build a new Family Court building in Philadelphia.

You get the idea. So go vote! The court could use the help.

Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • su2lly

    One more reason to vote and vote Dem. while you’re at it:
    The Repugs are out to screw state employees out of their pension. They can’t do it without the help of the state supreme court.
    Don’t think that’s a big deal? Try to get help with a tax issue or a license/registration problem from someone who was just cheated out of their retirement. If you think it’s bad now baby…you ain’t seen nothing yet.

    • TroyMule

      I bet you still blame Bush. Libtard.

      • su2lly

        Ha, if the shoe fits.

  • LMSinDE

    US House of Representatives has an approval rating in the mid-teens yet those Congressional seats have a 90% re-election rate nationwide.

    End Gerrymandering. These congressional seats should not be life-time jobs. If an elected official is not doing their job then it should be EASY to vote the bums out no matter what party.

    In 2012 just as many people in Pennsylvania voted for Sen Bob Casey and Barack Obama as they did to have a Democrat represent them in the US House of Representatives. Casey and Obama won and yet 13 of those 18 congressional seats went to the GOP.

    End Gerrymandering. No party should have an advantage based on how they map those congressional seats. If you want a Congress that does their job then those that were elected need to know their job ISN’T safe.

    • Copper34

      Amen !!!

      The Repervlicans have been CHEATING for way too long.

  • JeffersonSpinningInGrave

    Regarding local firearms laws, according to PA law, firearms laws can only be enacted at the state level. Local firearms laws are illegal, and therefore cannot be enforced. If you want to change that, you need to pass a new state law. That has nothing to do with the courts for now, unless you are counting on Democrat justices to be lawless. Which is kind of ironic, given your point number 5.

  • BarryObama2014

    Never vote for a Democrat, they are liberal trash that lie, cheat and use corruption to control government and win elections. Gov. Wolf is a deviant

    • aabb4455

      you worthless right wing scum got wiped the f out in PA this month. hahahah You right wing vermin are DONE in PA. You right wing scum.

      • BarryObama2014

        You liberal queer the Republican control the majority of state houses and the governor ships and congress. You are a pathetic loser!

        • aabb4455

          you right wing vermin are decimated in PA. Got Governor’s mansion? Got PA supreme court? We are just getting started you radical worthless right wing POS. You are DONE you POS parasite.

        • aabb4455

          as you worthless right wing cu nts are already finding out in PA, gerrymandering by you right wing cu nts DOESN’T LAST FOREVER you pathetic terrified right wing POS scum. hahah

        • aabb4455

          you right wing scum are getting wiped out all over. You right wing cu nts have LOST THE POPULAR VOTE in the last 5 out of 6 presidential elections. Come Nov 2016, you right wing scum are getting slaughtered out of existence and there i NOTHING you right wing nut jobs can do about it. First the Governor’s race in PA and now the PA supreme court races. You right wing scum are FINISHED in PA. Want a tissue you terrified conservative cu nt? hahahah

        • aabb4455

          It will be a great pleasure when you right wing scum lose the senate and the white house (for a 3rd straight time next year). Good riddance to you worthless right wing trash. hahaha


    • aabb4455

      wait until next year. You right wing vermin are getting eradicated politically you low information parasite.

      • BarryObama2014

        You are an idiot, the Democrats are a joke. BTW the Republicans control both houses in Pennsylvania you dumbass

        • aabb4455

          You right wing vermin are FINISHED in PA. The Governor’s race of 2014 and the recent PA supreme court races are just the BEGINNING you right wing trash. We are eradicating you right wing scum in PA politically. hahahah

        • aabb4455

          Conservatism is a mental disease that WILL be eradicated you right wing cu nt. hahahaha

    • aabb4455

      You lose the Governor’s race in PA and now you lose 3 supreme court seats on the PA supreme court. There is more where that came from you worthless right wing parasite cu nt. hahahaha

    • aabb4455

      We the MAJORITY will eradicate this mental disease called conservatism. Embrace the suck you low information parasite.