Fun fact: Love and hate aren’t opposites; rather, the passion and intensity of both emotions positions them quite close together on the feelings continuum. And it was with great passion that Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania reacted to the state Supreme Court’s ruling that their gerrymandered congressional map violated the state constitution. They responded with defiance, lashing out publicly. They even threatened to evict the offending justices from the bench through impeachment. Once the court released a fairer congressional map that remedied the GOP’s illegal partisan gerrymander, a sitting Republican member of Congress, Rep. Ryan Costello, added his weight to this extreme bullying tactic. And now U.S. Senator Pat Toomey is even endorsing the potential impeachment of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices, calling it a “conversation that has to happen.”
A general and justifiable sense of outrage has bubbled up around the GOP’s extreme overreaction. OMG THIS IS THE MOST INSANE THING! was a prevailing sentiment when news of the proposed impeachment surfaced.
But this extreme threat is, in fact, not an out-of-character response from the GOP. Republicans have a long and sordid history of highly public and extremely nasty fights with judges and other authorities outside of their control. GOP lawmakers in states all over the country have repeatedly sought to retaliate against perceived injustices at the hands of other branches of government with everything from changing the way judges are selected to defunding the entire judicial system to, yes, straight-up impeachment.
And no, this isn’t a “both sides” thing. Democratic lawmakers handle judicial rejection with relative grace. Republicans are the ones with the consistent and extensive history of messing with state judiciaries or other independent institutions as means of revenge for decisions perceived as adverse to the GOP’s interests. A look back at just the past seven years provides myriad examples.
First, let’s set the wayback machine to 2011, when Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), created in 2000 via a voter-initiated ballot measure that removed the drawing of state legislative and congressional district maps from lawmakers’ hands, drew new congressional maps that failed to give sufficient advantage to Republicans. (Rumor even had it that Rep. Ben Quayle’s mom, wife of the former vice president, called and yelled at GOP Gov. Janet Brewer because her son had been drawn into a seat with another Republican incumbent.) Brewer proceeded to fire the head of the IRC for this affront.
The Arizona Supreme Court found that Brewer had insufficient reason to remove the commission’s chief and reinstated her. The “offending” maps were approved by the IRC and went into effect for the 2012 elections. (Baby Quayle lost his primary.)
But Arizona’s Republicans weren’t done messing with the IRC. If we can’t control it, they decided, let’s get rid of it. So the legislature’s GOP majority sued to have the IRC declared unconstitutional, saying it unlawfully removed power over redistricting from the lawmakers themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, and Arizona Republicans were forced to let the IRC remain in existence. Arizona Republicans then tried to get the maps themselves declared unconstitutional, but that didn’t go their way, either.
Yet, years later, Arizona Republicans are still trying to twist the IRC into something they can control. Republican lawmakers are currently pushing a measure that would completely remake the IRC and undermine its bipartisan redistricting work. This proposal effectively takes redistricting authority away from the IRC and places it back in state legislators’ hands.
This IRC-gutting measure must pass both (GOP-controlled) legislative chambers and then be approved by Arizona voters this November. These are the same voters who took redistricting out of the legislature’s hands to begin with, so if the proposal makes it to the ballot, with any luck, it will face an uphill battle at the ballot box.
But courts remain Republicans’ favorite target. In 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling finding the state’s method of funding public schools both inadequate and unfairly distributed. This upset the Republican-controlled legislature, which responded with a pair of retaliatory laws that created a catch-22 of sorts for state courts. The first law stripped the state Supreme Court of administrative power over lower courts; the second stripped the state’s entire court system of funding if a court struck down any part of the previous law.
(In other words: If you don’t rule exactly the way we demand, we’re going to take away every penny that funds your operations—from the copy machines to the clerks to the judges themselves.)
That first law removing the court’s authority was at least pretty straightforwardly unconstitutional, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled thusly. But that triggered the law that eliminated the state court system’s financing. This didn’t last too long, though; it’s hard to run for re-election after you’ve destroyed the judicial system and your state’s become a lawless hellscape, after all. A few weeks later, the legislature blinked and passed a bill restoring the courts’ funding.
But Republicans weren’t going to let this perceived affront go without a further fight. Proposals surfaced to broaden the grounds for judicial impeachment, to give the governor and the legislature complete power over judicial selection, and to begin electing judges to state courts. The efforts stalled in 2016, but there’s no reason to think Republicans are giving up. Already this year, they’ve denied the state judicial branch’s request for a budget increase.
By the way, all five of the Kansas Supreme Court justices facing retention elections in 2016 kept their seats on the bench.
Speaking of 2016 elections, that was the year Democrat Roy Cooper ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina’s gubernatorial election. The state’s Republican legislators, occupying comfortable, veto-proof supermajorities in both the state House and Senate—obtained through gerrymanders that have since been ruled unconstitutional by the courts—were positively incensed that a Democrat had the temerity to win this race. So the GOP set about removing as much power from the executive branch as they conceivably could.
In December special sessions, with McCrory still in office but content to go out in a blaze of sour grapes, Republican legislators passed measures that fundamentally altered the state’s election oversight boards and forced the governor’s cabinet appointees to submit to state Senate approval. They also slashed the number of gubernatorial appointees from 1,500 to 425.
The North Carolina Supreme Court ended up blocking most of this Republican legislative power grab and restored much of this authority to Cooper shortly thereafter. But then Republicans used their veto-proof majorities to basically pass the same thing again—and again a state court swatted them down.
So, presented with some judicial rulings they didn’t like, Republican lawmakers set about messing with North Carolina’s court system itself. They started by ending public campaign financing, transforming the state’s previously nonpartisan judicial elections into partisan contests, and then they canceled judicial primaries. When three Republican judges on the state’s Court of Appeals hit mandatory retirement age, GOP lawmakers reduced the size of the court from 15 to 12, just to prevent the Democratic governor from appointing replacements.
Now North Carolina Republicans want to redraw the state’s judicial districts for the first time in 50 years, and they’ve proposed a gerrymandered map designed to elect Republican judges to 70 percent of lower court seats. They’re even proposing having the legislature appoint appellate judges instead of holding elections and having the governor fill any vacancies.
Republican lawmakers also dislike being watched and investigated by agencies they can’t control. In 2015, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature disbanded the state’s nonpartisan elections and ethics oversight agency, the Government Accountability Board (GAB). The GAB was created by a near-unanimous vote of the legislature back in 2007, and it had been hailed as “a national model for ethics and elections.” But after facing eight years of investigations of possible campaign violations, Republicans decided it was time to go back to the bad old days of partisan oversight.
Almost all of the GAB's critics were Republicans, and their ire was largely motivated by a GAB investigation into possible (and illegal) coordination between GOP Gov. Scott Walker's campaign and conservative groups during the 2012 recall election. Democrats lacked the numbers in the legislature to halt the GOP’s bill to dismantle the GAB, and in 2016, the board was officially dissolved and split into a separate ethics commission and an elections oversight commission. Commission members are now selected by legislative leaders or the governor—the very same partisan officeholders the commissioners are supposed to oversee. Critics called the move “a deliberate attempt to doom effective enforcement of Wisconsin election laws.”
This is just a small sampling of the most egregious attacks Republicans have leveled at the judiciary and other independent agencies and branches of government, but it’s by no means an exhaustive list (though the nonpartisan Brennan Center has a catalog of plenty more). The GOP’s contempt for courts and other government branches and agencies they lack power over burns intensely. Progressives must be girded for these ongoing assaults and fight back with even greater passion.