Perhaps you know the phrase “politics ain’t beanbag,” attributed to Chicago newspaper columnist Finley Peter Dunne, 1895.
Well, another thing politics ain’t is forgiving. And Pennsylvania politics is headed for a period, absent forgiveness and forbearance, to prove it.
I speak (OK, write) of the aftershock – and there’s certain to be one – of our state’s highest court clashing with our legislature over who draws political districts.
It’s a period promising dishes of revenge served cold.
When the state Supreme Court’s Democratic majority lifted the power of the legislature’s Republican majority to dominate state politics through gerrymandering, well, the GOP didn’t take it kindly and won’t, as they say, turn the other cheek.
What’s likely to get turned is a couple, three screws.
Four of five sitting Democratic justices voted to, let’s call it what it is, politically neuter the legislature. They cut legislative control over congressional maps and replaced it with their own.
(The sole noncastrator was Dem Justice Max Baer. Agreed that old maps were bad but didn’t like the court imposing new ones. He’s no relation, by the way. And doesn’t seem to enjoy it when I call him “Uncle Max.”)
So, hackles were raised.
But impeachment of justices? No. Calls for impeachment from some House members are guttural utterances from the wild. Just moon-howling. Loud, sure. And attention-getting. But going nowhere.
House GOP Majority Leader Dave Reed, even while calling the court’s action “wrong,” said, “Disagreement over the outcome of any particular case should not be grounds for impeachment.” He controls what gets considered in the House, where impeachment efforts must begin.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Saylor issued this: “Threats of impeachment directed against justices because of their decision in a particular case are attacks upon an independent judiciary, which is an essential component of our constitutional plan of government.”
He’s a deeply respected conservative jurist, a Republican who dissented in the gerrymander decision.
And I’d add that while shaking impeachment pitchforks appeals to the GOP base, it’s also reactive overreach with a tart taste of sour grapes that won’t serve long-term party interests.
There are other ways. Here’s an inside peek at what’s being discussed.
One is the level of animosity, angst and hatred for the court, or, rather, for the four justices in question. The level is way above beanbag stage.
The other is ways to express dissatisfaction.
There’s the annual court budget, currently proposed at $56 million and due to be approved by the GOP legislature in just a few months.
That number, no mystery, could face alteration. One thought is stripping funding for court facilities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – places that, coincidentally, each of the four out-of-favor Democrats (Justices David Wecht, Debra Todd, Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty) calls home.
The court has a $117 million judicial headquarters in Harrisburg since 2009. These days, it might need a moat.
Other options include constitutional amendments, the sole purview of the legislature, to alter the future of the court.
Since the last judicial election (2015) gave Democrats court control, look for action on long-stalled efforts to change the constitution to allow merit selection (rather than election) of state judges.
Maybe even selection with regional representation requirements because all five sitting Democrats are from either Pittsburgh or Philly.
Or, keeping statewide elections but making them regional elections.
In short, anger over “activist judges” could reshape the state’s judicial branch.
Ironically, the result of the court-imposed new map for congressional districts gives voters a fairer, less-biased landscape. A good thing. Old districts clearly were gerrymandered.
What raised eyebrows even among supporters of the result was the court’s hell-bent rush – ordering new maps within three weeks, then drawing its own – in what reasonable people could conclude was disregard for separation of powers.
Yet it stands after the U.S. Supreme Court twice declined to get involved, reminding us of a lesson learned in 2000 (Bush v. Gore): When high courts interpret constitutions, high courts can do what they want.
Now we face reminders of Pennsylvania’s partisanship, and the fact that politics ain’t beanbag.