Given the state’s political structure, it’s natural to think of the Legislature in terms of the major political parties. But that’s just part of the story. Individual lawmakers often are wholly owned subsidiaries of much narrower interests – gas, guns, unions and so on.
Those interests pay millions of dollars to lobbyists and in campaign contributions to enshrine their preferences in law. It’s why Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state not to impose an extraction tax on natural gas, why the state allows schoolteachers to strike, and so on. The public interest commonly plays second fiddle to the narrow interests that call the tune.
Now comes state Rep. Rob Kauffman of Franklin County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with a proposal to take that special-interest power to an absurd new level.
The state constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, establishes three separate and equal branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial. Kauffman proposes a constitutional amendment by which the Legislature could stomp on the judiciary in favor of the insurance industry and other corporate interests, at the expense of people who have sued those interests.
At issue is venue for civil litigation, the question of where civil lawsuits are adjudicated. It was a major issue in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the insurance and health care industries contended that trial lawyers, representing people alleging medical malpractice, “venue shopped” to file the cases in counties where they were most likely to succeed and with histories of large payouts. Broadly, that meant Philadelphia.
The state Supreme Court issued a rule in 2002 that civil litigation must be filed in the county where the alleged injury occurs. But Kauffman wants the Legislature – 253 politicians – to take over the venue decisions now handled by judges.
Pennsylvanians who have a constitutional right to a fair trial instead would have a right to a trial in a venue determined by politicians beholden to the powerful interests being sued.
That is a parody of justice and equal treatment under the law. Kauffman should desist, or his colleagues should summon what’s left of their regard for democratic separation of powers, and kill the proposal.