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The movement to throw out judges

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. Photo: Getty Images

From North Carolina to Oklahoma, lawmakers are trying to rein in judges in response to court rulings they don't like. The latest effort is in Pennsylvania, where 12 Republicans last week introduced resolutions to impeach the Democratic justices who threw out a GOP-drawn congressional map.

Why it matters: This growing trend of reshaping or constraining state courts, observers argue, undermines the independence of the states’ judiciary to issue rulings solely based on the law.

What's happening: As of March, lawmakers in at least 16 states are considering measures to ultimately diminish the role or independence of the courts, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal group that's tracking the legislations.

What the proposals would do:

  • Curb their state Supreme Courts’ power
  • Change how judges are selected
  • Restrain them legislatively
"I think it is hard to ignore the political climate. For the past two years the President has repeatedly attacked judges and courts for decisions he does not like, and in a series of tweets last month, the President egged on the legislators who lost the Pennsylvania case."
— Douglas Keith, senior counsel at the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice

In Pennsylvania: The impeachment resolutions filed on Tuesday came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court and a three-judge panel denied Republicans' requests to block the new congressional map. The new map is expected to make elections more competitive and put several Republican-held seats in play for Democrats this year.

The resolutions claim that four Democratic justices on the state court who voted to enact the new map have done so improperly.

  • Flashback: When the court struck down a 2011 GOP-crafted map in January, saying it unconstitutionally favored Republicans, the legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) were given more than three weeks to reach a consensus on a new map. They failed to do it.
  • Thomas Saylor, the Republican chief justice of the state's high court, on Thursday lashed out against the impeachment effort to remove four of the five Democratic justices, calling it “an attack upon an independent judiciary.”

The other side: Rep. Cris Dush (R), who's leading the effort, said in a statement Friday that it's "an unconstitutional theft of power issue" and that the "only constitutional check on misbehavior in office for the Supreme Court is impeachment."

What's next: It’s unclear how far Dush's effort will reach. The House first has to find that the justices committed impeachable offenses. The justice would then face a trial before the Senate where two-thirds of the body must vote to approve their removal. Republicans hold a 34-16 majority in the upper chamber.

  • Meanwhile, at least two GOP leaders are resisting the effort. House Speaker Mike Turzai said in a statement that he's "prepared to move on to other issues of importance to the people of Pennsylvania.” And Majority Leader Dave Reed insisted that "disagreement over the outcome of any particular case should not be grounds for impeachment."
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