Allow Pennsylvanians to Vote and Count Their Votes

PA-07_zpsd6ab2432— by Ben Turner

State Reps. Brian Sims (Philadelphia), Scott Conklin (Centre) and Tina Davis (Bucks) are introducing a package of three bills to help Pennsylvanian voters:

  • Making it easier to vote: Sims introduced House Bill 1506 which would allow in-person absentee ballot voting before primary and general elections and no-excuse-needed absentee ballot voting by mail. It has been referred to the House State Government Committee.
  • Redistricting reform: Davis and Sims will introduce House Bill 1637 to create an Independent Redistricting Commission, similar to the one recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ended partisan gerrymandering in Arizona.
  • Automatic voter registration: Conklin and Sims have introduced a bill (H.B. 1306) to set up automatic voter registration of all eligible people who obtain a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver identification card, with provisions for opting out within 21 days. Similar legislation has already expanded voter rolls in Oregon and California.

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Do We Want Our Judges Picked by the Luck of the Draw?

I recall sometimes going directly from morning services to the polling station on election day. On election day, we recite the Psalm for Tuesday (מזמור שֶׁל יוֹם שלישי) — Psalm 82, which praises G-d who “pronounces judgement over judges.”

The irony is palpable as I am then compelled to pass judgement on Pennsylvania’s judges, and vote on who will be retained as judge and who will pass on to retirement (a veritable judicial ונתנה תוקף).

Most voters are probably like me, without legal training and with no familiarity with any of these judges. In fact, as State Rep. Brian Sims mentioned, the single most determinant factor in predicting the winner of a judicial election is the ballot placement:

It’s time to remove partisan politics and campaign contributions from selecting our judiciary and implement a merit-based system for choosing Pennsylvania’s statewide judges. As you can see from the folks backing this effort, merit selection transcends party lines and geographical divides and pursues just one, clear goal: placing the most qualified and competent jurists in the courtroom.

Do we want our judges picked by the luck of the draw? And do we really want our judges pandering to special interests in order to raise campaign money and create a public name for themselves?

I would rather have judges who interpret the law fairly and protect the rights of minorities against the vagaries of whim of the majority.

Civil Rights Arrive in Pennsylvania: State Rep. Brian Sims Interview

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia), the first openly gay candidate to win an election to the state General Assembly, made headlines last week with the passage of a resolution for recognizing the Human Rights Day.

In an exclusive interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, he shared his plans for the next few years, a surprising Jewish connection, and a few thoughts on the House speaker, Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler County).

Q: Where did the idea for the resolution on the Human Rights Day come from?

I had known of the Day for 15 years, since I heard of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Last month, after the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, invited me to speak on advocating for civil rights at local events in honor of the Day, I decided to propose a resolution for recognizing this day in Pennsylvania.

Q: Was it realizing that you were gay that brought you to the civil rights area?

I have first learned of civil rights through feminism. Both of my parents were lieutenant colonels in the Army, so I grew up with a very strong woman and two very equal parents.

Being part of the gay community was one of the reasons that I ran for the House. Pennsylvania has no LGBT rights laws at all, so a lot needs to be done. Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the State Senate support such legislations.

Q: Has your being gay hurt you in ways that legislation could have prevented?

Not very often. To my fortune, I live in a city with many laws that protect my rights. In other areas of Pennsylvania, you can get fired from your job or kicked out of your house, and even get bullied just for being gay.

Q: Were you surprised last June, when the speaker of the House, Daryl Metcalfe, did not let you speak on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that it would be “an open rebellion against God’s law”?

Yes. I knew that he did not like me personally, and did not have respect for the House and its members, but I was surprised by the reason for which he did not let me speak.

Anyone can believe in anything they want, and have any motivation for their activism, but “God’s law” has no place in the Government and its voting.

Q: How has being elected changed your lifestyle?

I have always been very busy: Before being elected, I was the president of Equality Pennsylvania, and active in five more civil rights organizations. Now I am just as busy, but have a whole team that helps me.

In the little spare time that I have, I carry lectures, to teach the public on subjects such as saving money and public safety.

Q: What are your plans for the elections to the General Assembly next June?

I will run for the same office again. I need several more years to take care of all of the issues in my district (the 182nd House District, Center City).

Q: Do you have any connection with the local Jewish community?

When I worked as a lawyer, each and every one of my bosses was Jewish. They all understood what it meant to stand up and be an advocate for your community, so working as a lawyer had been connecting me with the Jewish community as well as with the lawyer community.

Last October, politicians from Pennsylvania held a diplomatic trip to Israel, but I could not go. A similar trip is planned for next March, and I would like to join it.

Bipartisan Pennsylvania Bill: Merit Selection of Appellate Judges

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

A bill to bring merit selection of appellate judges to Pennsylvania has been submitted in the State House of Representatives with a bipartisan sponsorship this week.

Pennsylvania State Representatives Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County) and Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) introduced the bill, which received immediate support from Pennsylvania’s current governor Tom Corbett (R) and previous two governors, Ed Rendell (D) and Tom Ridge (R), as well as the League of Women Voters and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

More after the jump.
The bill by Cutler and Sims would establish merit selection for appeal court judges only, while retaining the present method of judicial elections for all other courts and justices of the peace. Affected would be future judges of the Commonwealth Court, Superior Court and Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A bipartisan merit selection panel of fifteen citizens, selected by the governor and legislature, would propose a list of judicial candidates for each vacancy. The candidate chosen by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate would serve as a judge for a short term, and then would face a retention election without opponents in order to hold his or her chair. Retention elections at ten-year intervals would continue to apply to all judges.

The bill proposes an amendment to the state Constitution, and so must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then go before the people in a public referendum before taking effect.

Pennsylvania has been electing its judges only since the state Constitutional Convention of 1968. Those seeking election to our appellate courts typically visit county political committees across the state, seeking endorsement by one party or the other. In order to advertise and travel they have to raise substantial funds, and the usual sources are lawyers and law firms, that are likely to have business before the same courts.  

In the most recent election for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, each side was reported to have spent over $2 million. The successful candidate, Joan Orie Melvin, was subsequently convicted of election law violations, and suspended from her position.  

“Judges are different from officials in the legislative and executive branches so it makes sense to select them differently,” the Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts executive director, Lynn Marks, said.

Judges must decide cases solely on the facts and the law, not based on political considerations, platforms or constituencies. It just doesn’t make sense to have a totally partisan process for a nonpartisan job. And the problem with money in judicial races is that most of the money comes from attorneys and special interests that often appear in state courts.

Pennsylvania Senators Join Forces to Stop LGBT Discrimination


Brian Sims.

— by State Rep. Brian Sims (D-Phila.)

I have long believed that civil rights cannot be a one party issue.

Senator Casey (D-PA) has supported LGBT civil rights from nondiscrimination to marriage equality, and I was proud to see him continue to demonstrate that support last night.

I am especially proud of Senator Toomey (R-PA), who last night confirmed to Americans across the nation that civil rights is not an issue of right and left, but an issue of right and wrong. Senator Toomey’s vote in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) shows that a conservative ideology and support for LGBT equality are not mutually exclusive.

While I am heartened and invigorated by last night’s vote, we still have a long way to go in fulfilling our national creed, that we are all created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

More after the jump.
In 29 states including Pennsylvania, American citizens can still be fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, or denied services at businesses all because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. We must continue our efforts to pass nondiscrimination laws at the state level, such as HB300 here in Pennsylvania, to ensure that we eliminate the last vestiges of discrimination from our laws.  

But last night, we have made great progress. And I wholeheartedly thank Senators Casey and Toomey for voting on the right side of history.

Stark Contrast for Jews Between Democratic, Republican Conventions

The National Jewish Democratic Coalition welcomed delegates to the Democratic National Convention at their mobile headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (D-PA13) stopped by NJDC’s mobile headquarters and explained why she supports Obama/Biden 2012.


PA State Representative Brian Sims.


Equality Pennsylvania’s President Adrian Shanker.

— by David A. Harris, President of NJDC

The Democratic and Republican conventions held over the last two weeks will continue to make it clear to the vast majority of Jewish voters that the Democratic Party is the one party that champions their values. If the stark contrast between the Democratic Party’s platform-which commits to expanding civil rights, pursuing social justice, and working toward peace and security for Israel-and the “antisocial, anti-science, anti-reason” Republican platform is not enough to remind Jews of the immense stakes ahead in this election, the sights and speeches of the two conventions certainly will.

The Republican Party kicked off its convention by allowing its speakers to trash the President, Vice President, and fellow Democrats-often with language and jokes ranging from corny to disrespectful-on a variety of domestic issues that put the policy gaps between the GOP and most Jews on full display. Pledges to repeal Obamacare, pursue anti-choice and anti-marriage equality policies, and to support dangerous cuts to essential social services advocated in the Romney-Ryan budget-like ending Medicare as we know it-were the standard talking points from the seemingly endless stream of negative and divisive speeches delivered from the podium. When the “severely conservative” Mitt Romney and GOP “young gun” Paul Ryan took the stage for their headlining speeches, they kept up with the flow established by the previous speakers and delivered mendacious (per repeated objective analyses) speeches full of policy positions out of step with most Jews. Romney even belittled the idea of healing the world – the very heart of tikkun olam.

But if the policy differences between most Jews and the GOP weren’t enough, Romney and his Republican Party allowed two very Israel-challenged individuals to play significant roles in the convention. Romney personally selected Israel-challenged former Governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu to officially nominate him for president. And after NJDC and others sounded every alarm bell imaginable that anti-Israel Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) was becoming a legitimate force within the GOP, the Republican Party honored him with a video tribute that completely ignored his dreadful foreign policy positions. The GOP then gave his son Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)-who shares many of the same extreme foreign and domestic positions-a prime speaking slot.

More after the jump.

The Democratic National Convention will be different. The Democratic Party has historically been the home of most American Jews-and the 2012 convention will help affirm this. One needs only to look to the records of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party to understand why the majority of Jews will pull the lever for Democrats this November.

President Obama and his party passed a historic health insurance reform bill that has expanded-and will continue to expand-access to affordable health insurance for millions of Americans. The Democratic Party has fought against Republican obstruction to protect women’s rights, whether on matters of choice, contraception, domestic violence protections, or equal pay. The President has led on advancing equal rights for all by voicing support for marriage equality and working to repeal the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

President Obama has been Israel’s most important advocate on the international stage and has provided the Jewish state with unprecedented amounts of security aid-including $275 million in supplemental aid for missile defense programs that protect Israeli cities like Sderot from terrorist rocket fire, and an overall total of more than twice as much funding for missile defense programs as the prior administration. He is leading the global coalition to responsibly sanction Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons. His leadership has resulted in the largest and most significant sanctions regimen in history to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The President also ordered the raid that brought justice to Osama Bin Laden and firmly communicated to those seeking to harm America and its citizens that this President will not hesitate to use force to protect our country or its interests.

The multitude of policy positions and values shared by the Democratic Party and American Jews will be on full display in Charlotte, which simply cannot be said for the Republican convention. American Jews will listen when President Obama delivers his speech under the stadium lights, and will hear a President who has worked hand-in-hand with the Jewish community in the pursuit of social justice and security for Israel. For many American Jews, the Democratic Convention will be their point of entry to the 2012 campaign-and what they see will remind them why they overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in 2008 and will do so again in 2012.

Reprinted courtesy of the Washington Jewish Week.