The chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a Republican, spoke out Thursday against lawmakers of his own party who filed legislation to impeach four Democratic state Supreme Court justices over disagreements on the state’s congressional map.
The statement from Chief Justice Thomas Saylor comes days after a dozen Republicans in the state House filed articles of impeachment to remove four of the five Democrats on the court. The Republicans say the Democratic justices exceeded their constitutional authority in implementing their own congressional map after striking down the current one as unlawfully gerrymandered. Therefore, the lawmakers said, the justices should be removed from office.
The state Supreme Court imposed its own map only after giving lawmakers and the governor three weeks to come up with a replacement map. Republicans enjoyed a consistent 13-5 majority with the old district boundaries, despite GOP candidates earning just 50 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in recent presidential elections. The new map is expected to make congressional elections more competitive in the state.
“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. “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.”
Saylor and Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, the only other Republican on the seven-member court, were the only justices who voted against striking down the map.
Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, said it was uncommon for a sitting Supreme Court justice to speak out the way Saylor did.
“This is a very unusual move on the part of the Chief Justice and reflects the unprecedented calls for impeachment against a number of justices,” he wrote in an email. “The Court rarely makes such public statements toward another institution of government and in this case the rattling of the impeachment sword was loud enough to make Saylor react to a threat to the independence of the judiciary.”
State Rep. Cris Dush (R), who has led the call for impeachment, denied in a Wednesday interview that he sought retribution or to intimidate Democrats on the court. He also said he had received guarantees from House Speaker Michael Turzai (R) and state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R), the chair of the state government committee, that they would allow a vote on the impeachment legislation.
A majority of the House must vote to advance impeachment proceedings to the Senate, where two-thirds of the body must vote to remove an official from office. As of January, Republicans control 120 of 203 seats in the state House and 34 of 50 seats in the state Senate. The impeachment power is rarely used in the state.
The impeachment talk comes the same week that the United States Supreme Court and a lower federal court rejected Republican challenges to the state court’s decision. The decision means a new congressional map will be in place for the 2018 elections.