Impeachment: Read Between the Lines


March 24, 2018

Last week a number of prominent Pennsylvania officials very publicly criticized the effort by some members of the House of Representatives to move forward with resolutions aimed at the impeachment of four Justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the aftermath of a legal battle over congressional maps.

As a member of the House who supports pursuing this effort, I believe it's important to highlight each of those statements and offer some commentary.

Governor Tom Wolf's statement:

"This is an unprecedented and undemocratic attempt to retaliate against the judicial branch. The legislature should be helping people, not settling personal grudges. This is nonsense and a waste of precious time and resources.

"The U.S. Supreme Court and a separate federal court have settled the matter. This abuse of power should be stopped and House Republicans should start doing the real work the people elected them to do."

Impeachment of a Justice is neither unprecedented nor undemocratic. Justice Rolf Larsen was impeached by the General Assembly in 1994, and the impeachment process is clearly provided for in Article VI of the Pennsylvania Constitution. A defense of the separation of powers between the three branches of state government is helping people, both in the present and for the future.

The federal courts, despite recent actions on cases before them, did not actually offer any legal conclusion on the merits of those cases.

House Republicans behind this effort are seeking to halt abuse of power by the Court. The fact that the Governor criticizes them, but offered no criticism of House Democrats for their failure to work with Republicans to craft a replacement map when ordered by the Court to do so, makes this a political statement. This is not surprising, as the Governor is angling for re-election this year.

Chief Justice Tom Saylor's statement:

"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.

"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."

Of course he's concerned. As Chief Justice his job is not only hearing cases, but also worrying about the reputation of Pennsylvania's entire judicial system. He's put a lot of work into rehabilitating the Supreme Court's reputation during his tenure – a task not made easy due to some particular scandals among Justices recently – and having more Justices impeached would require years of further rehabilitation efforts.

As to an attack upon an independent judiciary, that would be one of the burning questions during the impeachment process. Did the Court's majority actually act independently? Or did the court act in an improperly political manner?

Regarding essential components of our constitutional plan of government, the impeachment process is just as essential as an independent judiciary, serving as a check and balance against judicial overreach and improper conduct by members of the court system.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro's statement (as excerpted from Pennlive.com):

Shapiro said "to impeach select state Supreme Court Justices because of a legal decision is ill-conceived and dangerous for our democracy."

Shapiro, a Democrat, said impeachment is "a serious and rarely used tool that is reserved for misbehavior in office, rather than opposition to a justice's legal opinion."

He went on to point out that the courts have handed down opinions during his time as attorney general that he opposed but he trusts that they were rendered by the courts "on integrity and based on the law."

The Attorney General skips over the important point of how a legal decision is made. One can disagree – or wholeheartedly agree, for that matter – with the outcome of any given case while simultaneously and independently questioning the methodology and motives behind reaching such a decision. The process counts.

He is correct that impeachment is a serious and rarely used tool, and is the only one so far to cite the constitutional basis for impeachment - misbehavior in office. This, rather than the outcome of the redistricting case, must be the focus of any impeachment effort.

He may trust that our courts render every decision with integrity and based on the law, but his executive branch blanket of trust does not speak for the legislature. Our state constitution empowers the General Assembly to question the actions of the other two branches of government, just as it provides checks and balances for those branches against actions of the General Assembly.

Conclusion

Let's get one thing straight: the congressional map the Court imposed is not going anywhere. So be it; let's get on with the 2018 election cycle. That said, there is plenty to question regarding the Supreme Court's motives and methodology in obtaining that outcome, and whether – when viewed in totality – those actions amount to misconduct in office.

The extension of constitutional provisions previously reserved only for drawing state legislative district maps to congressional district maps; imposing an unrealistic timeline on the General Assembly; not adhering to its own standards for mapping; implementing a map with a decidedly political bias; relying on consultants some members of the Court never spoke with or met. Every step taken by the Court in deciding this case and implementing a remedy should be carefully examined.

There is only one way for members of the General Assembly to conduct such an examination: by pursuing the impeachment process.

Sign Up To Receive Capitol Insights In Your Inbox!


*First Name:
*Last Name:
*Email: