Pennsylvania effort to impeach state supreme court members part of a national trend
Williamsburg, Va., (March 23, 2018) – Pennsylvania is the latest site of what has become a national trend: threatening state judges with impeachment because of their decisions.
At least 12 Pennsylvania lawmakers support impeaching four Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices for ruling that the state’s congressional map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered. The lawmakers allege the decision amounts to “misbehavior in office,” the threshold established in Pennsylvania for impeachment. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Thomas G. 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.”
America’s state court judges can be disciplined by judicial oversight bodies for ethical lapses, but removal by lawmakers usually requires misbehavior in office or serious criminal wrongdoing. The dispute over the congressional lines in Pennsylvania marks the fifth time in seven years that state high court judges have been threatened with impeachment or removal from office over their rulings. And it has happened more than a few times in other states in recent years.
In 2014, articles of impeachment were filed against five members of the Oklahoma Supreme Court for issuing a stay in a death penalty case while the court was reviewing a challenge to the state’s death penalty procedures.
In 2013, a bill of address sought to remove six of the seven members of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for ruling in a “private right of action” case.
In 2011, several efforts were made to remove four members of the Iowa Supreme Court for the court’s unanimous decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Three other members of the Iowa Supreme Court lost reelection in 2010.
In 2011, in what is perhaps the strangest case, the New Jersey legislature filed articles of impeachment against a supreme court justice on the basis that the judge refused to cast votes in certain cases.
Trial court judges in Missouri, New Hampshire and Oklahoma also have been threatened with impeachment for their decisions.
None of these judges threatened with impeachment by legislators were removed from office.
The NCSC Backgrounder is designed to provide the media with statistics and facts related to current issues of interest.
The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation's state courts.