Constitutional Amendments More Forward in Pennsylvania

Date: August 06, 2020

One limits Governor's power in an emergency, and another changes the election of judges

Before the state’s General Assembly adjourned for an August break, lawmakers approved two bills containing important amendments to the Pennsylvania constitution. This approval by the legislature is only the first step in a process that requires passage of constitutional amendments during two separate sessions of the General Assembly as well as voter approval in a statewide election. The Governor’s approval is not required. As a practical matter, these amendments could be considered again in the legislature early next year, when a new session convenes, and then be approved by voters in next May’s primary.

Senate Bill 1166, sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward (Westmoreland), would curtail the Governors’ emergency declaration powers by limiting a declaration to 21 days, after which it would require legislative approval. The bill would also clarify that the General Assembly could terminate (or extend) a Governor’s emergency declaration at any time without the threat of a gubernatorial veto. SB 1166 also contains an amendment prohibiting racial or ethnic discrimination under law.

The emergency declaration measures are in response to the ongoing fracas over Governor Wolf’s authority during the current COVID-19 crisis vis a vis the General Assembly. Pennsylvania is currently in the second of Governor Wolf’s 90-day emergency declarations, a status that gives the Governor almost unlimited power to impose restrictions in response to a disaster. Several weeks ago, the legislature passed a bill ending the current emergency declaration, but following a PA Supreme Court decision instructing the legislature to send the bill to the Governor for his approval, it was vetoed, keeping the emergency declaration in place. The amendments are necessary to clarify the separation of powers between the two branches during a disaster emergency.

House Bill 196, sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond (Lebanon) would revise the method for electing judges to the state’s three appellate courts – the Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court. The amendment would create judicial districts from which judges would be elected to each court. Currently, because judges are elected statewide, the majority (60%) of them come from the two most populous counties. The proposed amendment would ensure more diversity of judges from across the state’s geographic regions.

Both bills could be considered after the new General Assembly is sworn in in January, after which point the amendments would be presented to voters for final approval.

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