Congratulations of a cynical sort are in order for Republican Pennsylvania state Rep. Cris Dush, who has accomplished something notable. By urging his fellow GOP legislators to impeach five Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices who recently ordered the state’s congressional districts to be redrawn, he has proven that, even one year into the presidency of Donald Trump, an elected official can still shock us with their contempt for the rule of law, judicial independence and other core principles of our constitutional form of government.
Many things have contributed to our intensely polarized political culture, including the president himself and his cheerleaders in right-wing media who share and spread his disregard for the truth. But surely, hyper-partisan redistricting is as significant a culprit as any.
Of all the states where this has occurred, Pennsylvania’s is among the worst, with one torturously drawn district described as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.” Voters in the state are closely divided: there’s a Democratic governor, and voters went for Trump by the tiniest of margins. But as ThinkProgress has noted, the state’s congressional maps “enabled the GOP to win 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts even in years when Democrats won the statewide popular vote.” At the state level, more than two-thirds of the Senate seats are held by Republicans.
It’s hard to imagine such a brazen attack on the rule of law would have happened without the steady assault on checks and balances by President Trump and his supporters.
The current gerrymandered districts have faced multiple challenges in federal and state courts. On Jan. 22, a 5-2 majority of the state Supreme Court overturned the current lines. The court ordered that new lines be drawn in time for the 2018 elections. The Court backed its ruling with a request for data that would allow the court to draw new and fairer lines if the state legislature failed to do so. The leader of the state Senate’s Republicans told the court, essentially, to get lost.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, a request that was turned down by Justice Samuel Alito, among the most conservative justices on the court. The very next day, Rep. Dush began his effort to build support among his colleagues for impeaching the five justices who ruled against them.
How could you not be shocked?
Granted, this was not the first time in recent months that I saw a news headline, gasped, and had to do a bit of quick research to make sure I was not reading from a parody site. It has been a hard year for lovers of the Constitution, and for the principles that make it sacred to so many of us.
The president regularly attacks the free media and calls for changes that would give him legal power to silence his critics. During his campaign, he notoriously defamed a U.S.-born federal judge as untrustworthy given his Mexican ancestry. And Trump has openly admired politicians in countries like China and Turkey who have strengthened their own power by undermining democratic institutions, including the courts.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine such a brazen attack on the rule of law as we’re seeing in Pennsylvania would have happened without the steady assault on checks and balances by Trump and his supporters. And they are building on a much longer campaign against the federal judiciary by conservative evangelicals ― Trump’s most unwavering supporters ― who have spent more than 60 years denouncing federal court rulings on school desegregation, separation of church and state, and, more recently, equality for LGBTQ Americans.
Last fall, Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore addressed a luncheon at the Values Voter Summit, the biggest annual political gathering for the Religious Right. He called on Congress to impeach U.S. Supreme Court justices who recognized that the constitutional principle of equal treatment under the law protects the right of same-sex couples to be legally married. Trump and the Republican National Committee both backed Moore.
Americans have long relied on the courts to uphold their constitutional and civil rights; it is an essential part of the checks and balances our nation’s founders built into our form of government. Politicians who want to purge courts of judges who don’t fall in line with the party in power should be clearly named as threats to the democratic values and institutions that keep our society free.
Khizr Khan serves on the board of directors at People For the American Way.