HARRISBURG –The Pennsylvania Judiciary appears before the Senate Appropriations Committee every year to traditionally discuss budgets and criminal justice minutiae.
Must see TV it typically isn’t.
But Tuesday when Justices Sallie Mundy, a Republican, and Max Baer, a Democrat, took their seats in a Capitol hearing room a bit of tension and anticipation filled the air.
This was the legislature’s chance to grill the high court over its recent ruling that tossed the congressional district maps. Senators didn’t pass on the opportunity.
“I just wondered why this timing?” asked Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland. “Why’d the court decide to take this up right now?”
Baer said the courts don’t control the timing of cases. That, he said, is determined by when plaintiffs bring cases.
Ward suggested that using the new maps for this coming election year is confusing for voters and feels rushed.
Baer, who actually agrees with Ward and voted in the minority against enforcing the map for this election, nonetheless responded for the majority opinion.
“They (the majority on the court) thought it could be done. They thought it unpalatable to do an election with an unconstitutional map,” Baer responded.
Next up was Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe/Northampton.
“I look at this and I say why?” Scavello said of the Supreme Court’s newly installed map.
He complained that the map, which cost taxpayers $100,000, splits more communities than the map provided a few weeks ago by Senate Republicans.
“This is supposed to be perfect,” Scavello said of the court’s map. “And we paid somebody $500 an hour, and my neighbor across the street is gonna go vote for a different congressman, going to the same polling place, is wrong. It’s wrong, especially after we paid that kind of money.”
In actuality, all sides of the dispute are spending all kinds of money on outside attorneys and map-making consultants. A recent Philadelphia Daily News report had the cost at $4 million and rising.
Back to the hearing, Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery/Berks/Bucks, got right to the point.
“Where in the PA constitution, which branch of government has the responsibility for establishing legislative districts?” Mensch asked, trying to understand how the courts took it upon themselves to draw a map, a task performed by lawmakers.
Baer held up his copy of the constitution and said, “The legislature has the right in the first instance. Courts have the inherent authority to correct unconstitutional wrongs when they’re not corrected, and that’s what’s occurred here.”
Mensch shot back. “There’s an old axiom, ‘If two wrongs don’t make a right, you try a third,’ and here it looks like the court itself was compounding the problems with more problems.”
Baer insisted the majority of Supreme Court members acted in “good faith,” and there’s just a difference of opinion between the branches of government.
“Nobody who loses a lawsuit thinks the other side is right,” Baer said to moderate chuckles in the hearing room. “And one of the crosses that we bear as judges is that somebody is pleased and somebody is not pleased.”