POLITICS
02/06/2018 11:44 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2018

Pennsylvania Republican Wants Democrats On State Supreme Court Impeached Over Gerrymandering Decision

It's the latest in state GOP attacks on the court's integrity.

A Pennsylvania Republican is calling for the impeachment of five Democrats on the state Supreme Court who ordered lawmakers to draw a new congressional map because the current one so severely benefits the GOP that it violates the Pennsylvania constitution.

The Supreme Court gave lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) until Feb. 15 to agree on a map and has appointed a special master to draw one up if the two parties can’t reach an agreement. In a memo to all members of the Pennsylvania House, Rep. Cris Dush (R) accused the five Democrats on the court of engaging in misbehavior for ordering the new maps and subverting the process, outlined in the constitution, by which a bill can become a law. Dush asked his fellow lawmakers to sponsor legislation to impeach the five Democratic justices and bar them from holding any office in Pennsylvania.

“The five Justices who signed this order that blatantly and clearly contradicts the plain language of the Pennsylvania Constitution, engaged in misbehavior in office,” Dush said in the memo. “Wherefore, each is guilty of an impeachable offense warranting removal from office and disqualification to hold any office or trust or profit under this Commonwealth. I would ask you to please join me in co-sponsoring this legislation.”

Dush’s call for impeachment heightens a Republican attack on the state Supreme Court following its ruling in the nationally-watched redistricting case last week. House Speaker Michael Turzai (R) and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R) last week filed a motion at the state Supreme Court to try and disqualify the vote of Justice David Wecht, a Democrat, for criticizing gerrymandering when he was running for the bench in 2015. Wecht denied the request on Monday. Scarnati has also said he won’t give the court political data to assist it in drawing a new map because he believes its order is unlawful.

Dush has been calling for the impeachment of the five Democrats since the court’s ruling on Jan. 22. In a video posted the next day, he based his call for impeachment on an inaccurate understanding of the process the Supreme Court ordered for a new map. Dush claimed that if the legislature was unable to propose an acceptable map, Wolf would have a chance to draw a new one on his own. That’s untrue. If the governor and lawmakers can’t agree on a new map by Feb. 15, the court will draw its own map. But both the lawmakers and governor can submit proposed plans to assist the court.

Activists on Tuesday confronted Dush in his office at the state capitol in Harrisburg over his call for impeachment. Dush defended his position, saying the state Supreme Court was unlawfully narrowing the window between when a bill passes the legislature and when the governor must approve it.

“They [the state Supreme Court] have absolutely no authority to say that if the governor vetoes that it does not go back to the legislature. That is specific under the constitution. I am protecting the rule of law. This is not about gerrymandering,” he said.

The activists shouted that it was about gerrymandering and Dush left his office.

“This call for impeachment appears to be a major reach on the part of supporters and an action that certainly does not reflect the underlying conditions under which impeachments should even be considered,” said
Christopher Borick, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “It seems like a reflection of the broader undermining of judicial powers that are becoming part of the GOP playbook in the last year​.” 

Republicans control both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature. Impeachment must first be approved by the House and then two-thirds of the state Senate must vote to remove an official from office.

Neal Lasher, a Turzai spokesman, declined to weigh in on the call for impeachment.

“Rep. Dush’s resolution has not been introduced yet and we have not reviewed it. Our focus has been on the maps and the legal proceedings in this case,” he said in an email.

Representatives for Dush and Scarnati did not immediately return a request for comment.

The process is rarely used in the state. In 1994, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to impeach Justice Rolf Larsen, a Democrat who was convicted by a state court of a felony for having his doctor write out prescriptions for tranquilizers and antidepressants to his law clerks. The Senate then voted to remove him from office. At the time, he was the first elected official to be removed from the bench in Pennsylvania in 183 years. 

Douglas Keith, counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed a friend of the court brief supporting the voters challenging the maps, said Dush was calling for impeachment in an instance where it clearly wasn’t warranted.

“This is not what the impeachment power is for – the impeachment power exists to remove officials who have engaged in serious criminal or ethical wrongdoing,” Keith wrote in an email. “For more than two centuries it’s been understood in America that, for courts to have the independence necessary to play their proper role, judges shouldn’t be impeached for rulings we disagree with or for other political motivations.”

This story has been updated with comment from Lasher .

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