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GOP Chief Justice Slams Republican Judicial Impeachment Move

Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor attends a ceremony at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Jan. 5, 2016.

The Republican chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court expressed concern Thursday about an effort by several House Republicans to impeach four Democratic justices over their rulings in a congressional redistricting case.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor issued a statement two days after 12 House Republicans introduced resolutions seeking to impeach the four justices.

"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. "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."

The 12 co-sponsors are among the chamber's more conservative members, and it's unclear whether they can gather enough support in the 203-member House for the process to get traction.

A House Republican caucus spokesman said earlier this week that judicial impeachment is not a decision to be made lightly, and that GOP members, who hold a 121-82 majority, had not had a discussion about it.

A message left Thursday for the resolutions' prime sponsor, Jefferson County Rep. Cris Dush, was not immediately returned.

On Tuesday, Dush warned that letting the redistricting decision "stand without taking action" could set a precedent the court would use to "write law."

The resolutions seek the impeachment of justices David Wecht, Debra Todd, Christine Donohue and Kevin Dougherty.

The state's Democratic leaders have been highly critical of the effort, with House Minority Leader Frank Dermody calling it a ridiculous political vendetta and Gov. Tom Wolf saying it was "an unprecedented and undemocratic attempt to retaliate against the judicial branch."

The Democrats on the elected court, currently a 5-2 majority, voted together in January to throw out a congressional district map Republicans crafted in 2011 to help their candidates.

The court majority called it an unconstitutional gerrymander.

Four of the five then issued an order giving lawmakers about three weeks to enact a replacement that Wolf would support. When that process failed, the four Democratic justices being targeted for possible impeachment voted to impose their own map.

Republican leaders in the Legislature and eight incumbent Republican congressmen sought to prevent the use of the new 18-district map in this year's elections, but on Monday a lawsuit was rejected by a three-judge panel of federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request for a stay.

The 2011 GOP-drawn map produced three straight election cycles in which their party's candidates won 13 of the congressional races. Democrats have a 5-4 statewide registration edge in Pennsylvania, and prevailed in 18 of 24 statewide elections while the 2011 map was in use.

The new map is widely viewed as being more favorable to Democrats, who are hopeful they can flip some seats in the state as part of an effort to reclaim the majority in the U.S. House.