One day after a dozen Republican legislators signed on to proposed legislation to impeach Democratic justices on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor issued a statement calling their effort “an attack upon an independent judiciary.”
“As chief justice of Pennsylvania, I am very concerned by the reported filing of impeachment resolutions against justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania related to the court’s decision about congressional redistricting,” Saylor said in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “Threats of impeachment directed against justices because of their decision in a particular case are an attack upon an independent judiciary, which is an essential component of our constitutional plan of government.”
The statement came after 11 members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives signed on to co-sponsor four pieces of legislation by Rep. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, proposed last month. The proposals seek the impeachment of Justices Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, Debra Todd and David Wecht. A fifth piece of legislation calling for the impeachment of Justice Max Baer has not yet received any support. All five of those justices were elected as Democrats.
Dush’s proposals claim the justices engaged in “misbehavior in office,” and were filed in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to replace the 2011 congressional map after determining that it had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
The court scrapped the map in January on a 5-2 vote, with all five of the justices elected as Democrats voting in favor. The court, however, voted 4-3 in favor of replacing the map immediately. Baer was the lone Democrat who voted in favor of keeping the old map in place for now.
Throwing their support behind Dush’s proposed legislation are Rep. Francis X. Ryan, R-Lebanon; Rep. Martin Causer, R-Cameron; Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks; Rep. Seth Grove, R-York; Rep. Kristin Hill, R-York; Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Cumberland; Rep. John McGinnis, R-Blair; Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler; Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams; Rep. Will Tallman, R-Adams; and Rep. Judy Ward, R-Blair.
In an emailed statement, Dush said the proposed legislation is “neither a ‘threat’ nor an ‘attack on an independent judiciary.’”
“Even though the action by the court’s majority to overturn the enacted congressional maps is causing unnecessary confusion, the court’s action of drawing their own map to replace it is, I believe, a clear violation of our constitution and the separation of powers among what are supposed to be three separate but equal branches of government,” Dush said. “When the judicial branch fails to follow the constitution, the constitutional answer is impeachment. I believe this action would fulfill our constitutional responsibilities and oaths.”
Dush’s legislation is expected to be referred to the state House of Representatives’ State Government Committee for a hearing. Metcalfe, a conservative firebrand who signed on as a sponsor of the measure, is the co-chair of that committee.
Sending the measures to Metcalfe’s committee avoids a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, which normally conducts oversight of the judicial branch. That panel is chaired by state Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, who has taken no position on the impeachment effort and has announced he won’t be seeking re-election this year.
In the impeachments of Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994, and Justice Joan Orie Melvin in 2013, proceedings began in the House Judiciary Committee.
The comments from Saylor, who was elected as a Republican, mark the first time the chief justice has spoken out about the issue. During budget hearings before lawmakers in February, Baer, the second justice in seniority, defended the court’s decisions.
The debate over the court’s handling of the map has been highly partisan, but many members of the legal community have been fast defenders of the court.
“I completely agree with Chief Justice Saylor’s statement,” Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Mary Platt said in a statement Thursday. “[A]nyone has a right to disagree with a court’s decision, it is improper for members of the legislative or executive branches of government to threaten or take punitive or retaliatory action against a court or individual judge for decisions made in any case.”
Bar associations across Pennsylvania have also thrown their support behind the court. Both the Philadelphia Bar Association and the Pennsylvania Bar Association issued statements supporting the court last month, and on Wednesday, Allegheny County Bar Association president Hal Coffey issued a statement saying, “The separation of powers among the three branches of government is an essential element of democracy, and our courts must be able to operate independently without political interference and impeachment threats.”
On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Bar president Sharon López issued another statement about the impeachment efforts, saying the statewide bar group joins Saylor’s concerns.
“The judiciary must have the independence to interpret the law without political interference or threats of impeachment by another branch of our democracy,” she said. “Calls for impeachment are not supported by the Pennsylvania Constitution, which makes clear that public officials can be impeached ‘for any misbehavior in office.’ There is no misbehavior tied to the court’s ruling.”
Political experts recently told the Legal it is unlikely Dush will be able to amass sufficient political support to pass any impeachment resolutions. However, they also noted that Republicans have a clear majority in the House, and, with 16 Democrats to 34 Senate Republicans, the GOP has more than the two-thirds majority needed to remove the justices.