Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers are going crazy … crazy like foxes. On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a request to stay a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that ordered the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to redraw the state’s congressional districts, Republican lawmakers have begun calling for extreme, democracy-shredding measures in response. State Rep. Cris Dush, the leader of this effort, has submitted an official memorandum requesting his colleagues join him in starting the impeachment process against the five justices on the state high court who found the GOP’s congressional map to be an illegal partisan gerrymander in violation of the state constitution.
“The five Justices who signed this order that blatantly and clearly contradicts the plain language of the Pennsylvania Constitution, [sic] engaged in misbehavior in office,” Dush proclaims in his memo.
Fun fact! The five justices Dush wants to impeach are the five Democrats on the bench.
Republican House leadership isn’t ruling out Dush’s impeachment proposal. And if the GOP speaker wants to stay in charge of the chamber, he has very powerful motivation to move forward with impeachment.
Supreme Court elections in Pennsylvania are partisan, and in 2015, three open seats were filled that shifted the balance of the court from a three-to-two Republican majority (with three vacancies) to a five-to-two Democratic one. Subsequent elections for these justices will be “retention” (yes-no) elections, which incumbents very rarely lose, so open seats present the only real opportunity for either party to gain seats. These occur very rarely, usually only when a justice reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75. The next time a Democrat will hit that milestone isn’t until 2022, and the next time after that—remember, the GOP now has a two-seat defict—won’t be until 2027.
Consequently, Republican have almost no chance of flipping the court before 2021.
Wait, 2021? Who cares about 2021?
Pennsylvania’s Republican legislators care about 2021—quite a lot. You see, that’s when a commission of two Republicans, two Democrats, and a fifth member agreed upon by the other four create new state House and Senate maps.
If (when, let’s be real) the two Republicans and two Democrats fail to agree upon that fifth tie-breaking member, the state Supreme Court steps in to select the member, which it did in 2011, when Republicans had a court majority. In 2021, conversely, a Democratic-majority Supreme Court is likely to select a tiebreaker who will reject any map that unfairly benefits Republicans.
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Additionally, legal challenges to the state House and Senate maps are normally handled by the state Supreme Court, placing another anti-GOP gerrymander trump card in Democrats’ hands.
The Democratic majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court therefore constitutes an existential threat to Republicans’ lopsided majorities in the the state legislature. Fairer maps would help undo the massive majorities the GOP enjoys in both chambers: 120 Republicans, 81 Democrats, and two vacancies in the state House; 34 Republicans and 16 Democrats in the Senate—all despite the fact that Trump carried Pennsylvania by less than a single point in 2016.
But Republicans’ strength in the legislature may, in turn, pose an existential threat to the Democrats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Impeachment presents the only opportunity for Republicans to oust Supreme Court Democrats before the justices have a chance to disrupt the GOP’s gerrymandering schemes in 2021.
And Republicans have the numbers to do it.
Articles of impeachment need only be passed by a majority in the state House, which Republicans have. And removal from the bench requires a two-thirds supermajority vote in the state Senate—which Republicans also have, thanks to the gerrymandering they executed so skillfully seven years ago.
Pennsylvania Republicans’ threats to impeach the Democratic justices who sided against them in the gerrymandering lawsuit might sound like histrionics, they’re not. The threat is real, and their motivation is acute. They have the numbers to make it happen—for now.
But all 203 House seats are on the ballot this fall, as is half of the 50-seat Senate. With the political environment looking abysmal for Republicans, voters have the chance to curtail the GOP’s dominance in the Pennsylvania legislature in November—and apply lots of pressure before then.