POLITICS
03/20/2018 06:13 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2018

Pennsylvania GOP Moves To Impeach Supreme Court Democrats For Gerrymandering Ruling

A Republican leading the impeachment drive says it's about separation of powers.

A dozen GOP Pennsylvania lawmakers filed legislation on Tuesday to impeach four Democratic state Supreme Court justices who ruled the state’s congressional map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered and replaced it with a new one.

The Republicans moved to impeach Justices David Wecht, Christine Donahue, Kevin Dougherty and Debra McCloskey Todd, all Democrats who found the state’s congressional map was designed to favor Republicans and must be replaced before the May primary. Justice Max Baer (D), who also voted to strike down the map, but said it could remain in place until 2020, wasn’t mentioned in the impeachment resolutions.

The legislation comes a little more than a month after state Rep. Cris Dush (R) urged impeachment of the Democratic justices. The state Supreme Court ruled in January 5-2, along party lines, that congressional districts drawn in 2011 were so lopsided to benefit Republicans that they violated the guarantee of free and equal elections. The court gave lawmakers three weeks to draw a new map with Gov. Tom Wolf (D), but imposed its own plan once they failed to reach an agreement. Two Republican appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal lawsuit have been unsuccessful in blocking the new map.

In an interview Wednesday, Dush denied that the push for impeachment was retaliation against the Democrats on the sate Supreme Court.

“It’s specifically to do what I’ve been sworn to do, which is protect and defend the constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States, period. The Supreme Court overstepped its bounds, and the check-and-balance to that is impeachment and impeachment only. We have no other method to hold them accountable,” Dush said.

Even though the Supreme Court gave lawmakers and Wolf three weeks to come up with a new congressional map, Dush said it was clear the court always intended to draw its own map because it released its full opinion only days before the deadline it had given state officials.

Dush also said Republican House Speaker Michael Turzai and state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R), the chair of the state government committee, had told him they would allow his impeachment resolution to come up for a vote. 

Dush had argued to The Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday that if the court was trying to exceed its power, future Republican-controlled courts might overstep as well.

A day earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Republican lawmakers challenging the new map.

Douglas Keith, counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting voters who had challenged the old map, said it was “remarkable” so many legislators were backing the impeachment effort.

“They may think this kind of posturing when they disagree with a court ruling will go over well with partisans in our current political climate, but if so they’re undermining our democracy to score cheap political points,” Keith said. “This is not what the impeachment power is for, and they’d be better served by following the lead of their Republican colleagues who said yesterday it’s time to move on.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, now chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, accused Republicans of seeking retribution against justices who struck down the old map.

“This brazen attack on an independent court by those who are afraid to face the people in fair elections undermines our democratic values and must be rejected,” Holder said in a statement.

Supreme Court justices are elected in Pennsylvania. To impeach, the state Assembly must first find that a judge committed an impeachable offense. Then, two-thirds of the state Senate must vote to convict after a trial. As of January, Republicans controlled 120 of 203 seats in the Assembly and 34 of 50 seats in the Senate.

It’s unclear whether the legislation has a chance. 

Neal Lesher, a spokesman for Turzai, said Republicans would consider the impeachment resolutions. “There are members who want [to] initiate impeachment, in particular when it comes to the behavior of Justice Wecht,” Lesher said in a statement. “We will need to review what the evidence is, and whether all of the leaders as well as a majority of the members of the House want to pursue that remedy. It is not a decision to be taken lightly and we have not had those discussions.” 

Drew Crompton, a top aide to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R), said it would be inappropriate to comment because the chamber would have to preside over an impeachment trial. J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf, who has no role in the impeachment process, said the governor did not support impeachment.

The last time a judge was impeached in the state was in 1994, when a state Supreme Court justice was found guilty of a felony. 

Pennsylvania Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2011 and drew a congressional map that significantly benefitted their party, according to the court ruling. In 2012, 2014 and 2016, Republicans won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats, even though they’re outnumbered by Democrats in voter registration and won only about 50 percent of the vote.

The map the court imposed would make elections much more competitive in the state, and could give Democrats a chance to pick up three or four seats.

This article has been updated to include comments from state Rep. Cris Dush.

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