ACLU-PA Position: Opposes
House Bill 38 (PN 17) is a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would create judicial districts for the purpose of electing judges and justices to Pennsylvania’s appellate courts. While judges and justices on the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts are currently elected at-large across the state, the proposed amendment would allow the legislature to draw geographic districts based on population. The stated reason for this amendment is to create a more geographically diverse judiciary and limit the number of judges and justices from Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.
But judges represent law, not a geographic area. Unlike the executive and legislative branches that represent constituents’ policy preferences when making decisions, the judiciary impartially interprets and applies the law even — and for the ACLU, especially — when it protects marginalized communities and the politically unpopular. Any attempt, like HB 38, to remake the courts as entities responsive and beholden to the views of their constituents undermines the court's ability to protect civil rights and civil liberties against the tyranny of the political majority.
HB 38 would grant the legislature the power to draw judicial districts, subjecting appellate courts to undue influence by the General Assembly while injecting partisan advantage into the system. In so doing, HB 38 poses a grave threat to the separation of powers and to the independence of Pennsylvania’s judiciary.
Proposed constitutional amendments must pass with identical language in two consecutive sessions. Having passed last session, if HB 38 passes for a second time this session, it could be placed on the ballot for ratification as early as the May primary. If approved by a simple majority vote of electors, it would become part of the Pennsylvania Constitution.