Defending democracy in PA begins with judiciary

by Karen Bojar
Posted 7/7/21

Over the 4th of July weekend, I had quite a few discussions with friends and relatives about the state of our democracy. This 4th of July was the first time I seriously considered the possibility that our democratic institutions were in jeopardy.

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Defending democracy in PA begins with judiciary

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Over the 4th of July weekend, I had quite a few discussions with friends and relatives about the state of our democracy. This 4th of July was the first time I seriously considered the possibility that our democratic institutions were in jeopardy. For the first few years of the Trump administration, I thought our institutions were strong enough to withstand Trump’s blatant assault, but by 2020 I began to seriously worry if the guardrails would hold. They did, barely.

Trump may no longer be president, but the threat to our democracy continues. The latest Trump-inspired attempts to undermine the electoral process target election workers with threats of stiff fines and prosecutions. Recruiting poll workers will become increasingly difficult if they face threats not only of bodily harm from right-wing zealots but also of criminal prosecution.

Republican-controlled state legislatures are racing to pass measures making it harder for citizens to vote. In March 2021, the Georgia state legislature passed strict constraints on the use of ballot drop boxes, barred election officials from sending out absentee ballot applications, reduced the time frame to apply for absentee ballots, and imposed identification requirements for voting by mail. Attorney General Merrick Garland intends to sue Georgia, stating: “The rights of all eligible citizens to vote are the central pillars of our democracy. They are the rights from which all other rights ultimately flow.”

Many of these voting rights disputes will be settled in our courts. Unfortunately, Trump’s legacy lives on in his judicial appointments. As the Guardian put it: “Donald Trump’s presidency was capricious and chaotic, but there was one issue on which he focused with laser-like discipline: tilting the judiciary to the right.” According to ballotpedia.org, Trump appointed 234 judges, including 54 appellate judges, more than Barack Obama’s first term total of 172 and George W Bush’s 204.

In the November general election, Pennsylvania voters have the opportunity to push back against Trump’s campaign to change the composition of judiciary as we elect one PA Supreme Court justice, one judge of the Superior Court, and two judges of Commonwealth Court.

Before the Republican party became the party of Trump, Republicans committed to democracy were elected in judicial races. Some of these judges, whose primary allegiance was to the Constitution rather than to partisan politics, dismissed Trump supporters’ lawsuits to overturn a fair, democratic election. Increasingly, however, Republican judicial nominees will be chosen by a Trump-controlled Republican party.

The statewide judges elected in November will in all likelihood become involved in the congressional redistricting process. In 2018, the Democratic majority on the PA Supreme Court threw out the state’s 2011 map of redrawn congressional districts contending it was it was gerrymandered to favor Republicans, who, despite losing the popular vote in the 2010 congressional elections held 13 out of 18 seats. The Court drew a new map, which was used in the 2018 elections resulting in a 9-9 division.

New maps will be drawn after the release of census data for the Congressional, state House, and state Senate districts in mid-August 2021. It is widely expected that the state courts will again play a role in the redistricting process and thus it is critically important that voters pay attention to statewide judicial races.

In Philadelphia’s general elections, statewide judicial races with no contested local races on the ballot have historically had very low turnout. In our one-party town, contested local races are decided in the Democratic primary, and many voters have relatively little interest in the outcome of statewide judicial races.

The 2013 race for Judge of the PA Superior Court was a close contest decided by a few percentage points, with only 11.3 % of voters participating in the decision. The media coverage of the race for Superior Court was almost non-existent, and in many neighborhoods around the city it appeared that committeepersons were making little effort to inform voters and get out the vote.

Fortunately party leaders and political activists made a serious effort to educate the voters in the 2015 Supreme Court race, and turnout in Philadelphia rose to 25.62%—still dismal, given the importance of the race, but a significant improvement over the 11.3% turnout in 2013. Turnout in off-year elections has not returned to the rock bottom levels of 2013, and has been slowly inching upward. Nonetheless, turnout for the 2021 May primary was only 21.29% -- certainly nothing to celebrate.

The judiciary is the first line of defense for our democracy. To begin to undo the damage caused by Trump’s assault on our democratic institutions, in November, we must elect judges who are committed to upholding free and fair elections. Our democracy is at stake.

Karen Bojar lives in East Mt. Airy and is a writer, a longtime feminist activist and former president of Philadelphia NOW. Her next book “Feminist Organizing Across the Generations” will be published by Routledge in November of 2021.

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