Philadelphia Inquirer. Feb. 1, 2021.

Editorial: After barely surviving 2020, Pa.’s democracy might not survive the Republican effort to gerrymander the court

The effort of Republicans to usurp the will of the people in the presidential election by any means possible failed in large part because the judicial branch wouldn’t entertain nonsensical claims of fraud.

For years, the state’s appeals courts have been a thorn in the side of Republicans. In 2014 a Commonwealth Court judge struck down a Republican voter ID law. Four years later, the state Supreme Court struck down the legislature-drawn congressional district map and redrew it to be more fair. Then in the months before the 2020 election, and after, the state Supreme Court joined federal courts to reject baseless allegations of fraud. Republicans called for the impeachment of Democratic justices both in 2018 after the redistricting case and in 2020 after cases related to the election and the constitutionality of stay-at-home orders.

Apparently, if you can’t beat them, or impeach them, gerrymander them.

Pennsylvania Republicans in the General Assembly are fast-tracking a constitutional amendment that will fundamentally change the state’s three courts of appeals — Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme Courts — by electing judges based on newly created districts instead of statewide elections.

If both chambers pass the measure before Feb. 18, it will be on the ballot in the May primary.

Proponents of the measure point out that a majority of judges in the statewide courts are from either Philadelphia or Allegheny County — including four of seven Supreme Court justices. State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), who introduced the amendment, argues that geography is part of what shapes judicial ideology, and the high courts should reflect geographic diversity.

The constitutional amendment is not an effort to increase representation on the bench. It is a power grab by the legislative branch. Gerrymandering, the exercise of drawing district maps to ensure politically homogenous districts, has become a science. By drawing and controlling the map of judicial districts, the legislature would control the branch that is supposed to act as its check.

The process of drawing the map will be another partisan fight — just as drawing legislative districts maps is now. How will disputes over the fairness of the map, as the one the court settled for congressional districts in 2018, be addressed when the court itself is at issue?

Judicial districts don’t only give more power to the legislature, they also give donors and interest groups more power to influence judges.

Narrowing the constituency of judges would make them more partisan and susceptible to pressure from their district — instead of ruling impartially in cases that impact the entire commonwealth.

The amendment has drawn wide criticism from experts and even from former Republican Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ronald Castille.

If Republicans want more seats on the bench, they should do the hard work of winning statewide elections. Ironically, the recent election that Republicans called fraudulent was proof that they can win statewide offices in Pennsylvania.

Voting is only one issue that comes in front of the Supreme Court. The judiciary is a critical, yet often opaque, check on the other branches of government. Those interested in justice should make their objections to this shameless proposal heard.

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LNP/Lancaster Online. Feb. 1, 2021.

Editorial: We’re glad to see renewed push to get Harriet Tubman onto the $20 bill

THE ISSUE: “With a change of administrations, it looks like Harriet Tubman is once again headed to the front of the $20 bill,” The Associated Press reported Jan. 25. Jen Psaki, the press secretary for President Joe Biden, said the Treasury Department is resuming efforts to put Tubman’s image on the U.S. currency. Those efforts had begun under the Obama administration, with then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew selecting Tubman to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20. But those efforts were essentially stalled during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

First, a reminder of what an amazing woman Harriet Tubman was, for those who might not be familiar with her life story.

She was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland. (That year is the best estimate by historians. The genealogical records of most enslaved people in the United States are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.)

She escaped from slavery in 1849 and — not content to save just herself — became best known as the courageous “Moses” who repeatedly put her own life in jeopardy to help bring enslaved people from the South to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad.

But that was hardly all. As we noted in an editorial last year, “Tubman was also a military scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a champion of women’s suffrage.” She didn’t waste any of her nine decades.

Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass directed this tremendous praise at Tubman in 1868: “The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.”

Lovely words, and absolutely correct. Tubman was a hero.

That’s absolutely why she fits the bill for America’s $20 note.

It’s appropriate, too, to get this bit of news as we head into Black History Month.

It’s a shame, though, that the Tubman bill had a four-year detour. In April 2016, Lew explained that the initial plan had been for the Treasury to redesign the $10 note to feature a woman and “encourage a national conversation about women in our democracy.”

To that end, hundreds of women had been nominated for the honor of being on the redesigned $10 bill. But a surprise was unfolding in American popular culture at that time: a renaissance for Alexander Hamilton, the man on the $10 bill, thanks to the Broadway sensation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Suddenly there was resistance to giving Hamilton the boot.

So Lew switched gears and announced that the $20 would be redesigned instead, replacing seventh president Jackson with Tubman.

“I have been particularly struck by the many comments and reactions from children for whom Harriet Tubman is not just a historical figure, but a role model for leadership and participation in our democracy,” Lew wrote for the 2016 announcement.

But following that year’s presidential election, “Trump administration Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not move forward with the decision by the Obama administration,” the AP explained. “Instead, Mnuchin in 2019 announced a delay in redesigning the $20 bill in order to redesign the $10 and $50 bills first to improve security features to thwart counterfeiters.”

Mnuchin’s plan would have delayed the Tubman $20 until 2028.

The Biden administration is accelerating that process.

“It is important that our .... money reflect the history and diversity of our country and Harriet Tubman’s image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that,” press secretary Psaki said. “We are exploring ways to speed up that effort.”

Fittingly, the head of the Treasury is now Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold that position in the department’s 232 years.

Also fittingly, this new push is happening under Vice President Kamala Harris — the first woman to be vice president, the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency.

Ceilings are shattering.

When the Tubman news was first revealed by the Treasury in 2016, we wrote: “Finally, a woman — and indeed, a woman of color — will be honored on the front of American paper currency, and only 240 years after our nation’s founding! Well, 240-plus however many years it takes for the new $20 bill to be created and put into circulation.”

As it turns out, “however many years” has been a bit longer than expected.

Tubman likely wouldn’t have been dissuaded by such obstacles.

“I would fight for liberty so long as my strength lasted,” she once said.

She was an inspiration in so many ways, and we’re elated to see that the move to honor her on the $20 bill is rightfully back on track.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jan. 28, 2021.

Editorial: Boosting confidence in the state police

The Pennsylvania State Police has resumed collecting racial data during traffic stops, a practice that once had been normal protocol but that had been discontinued without any notice or explanation.

The turnaround was a right move that will help to rebuild confidence in an institution that has been shaded with the suspicion of racial bias.

The return to transparency was sparked by an investigative report by Spotlight PA, a consortium of news-gathering operations.

The compilation of racial data during traffic stops is commonplace among police departments across the nation. The data collected can shine a light on any potential racial bias — bias that could be overlooked, absent such data.

Information is power. And the information that will be unearthed by resuming a program that had operated for a decade, until 2012, is critical if for no other reason than to discount perceptions of unfairness during police enforcement in Pennsylvania.

Though the renewed protocol appears to have been spurred by public pressure, the state police are to be credited for doing the right thing — regardless of the agency’s underlying reasons for doing so.

State police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick issued a news release announcing the resumption of racial data collection with an inspiring promise: “Troopers take an oath to enforce the law ‘without any consideration of class, color, creed or condition,’ and this data collection effort is one way to show the public we are upholding that oath.” He said ongoing and regular analysis by a third party will be done and he acknowledged that analysis is “a critical part of this program that emphasizes our department’s commitment to transparency and continuous improvement.”

Under the renewed program, state police troopers will collect traffic stop information that includes the age, gender, race and ethnicity of drivers and passengers. Troopers also will record the duration of the stop, whether a vehicle search was conducted and any results of the search.

Municipal police departments in Pennsylvania should follow suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit last summer against the state police alleging troopers were violating the law by stopping and holding people because they were of Latin descent. The Spotlight PA investigation disclosed that data collected in the early 2000s raised no alarms about police stops but reflected that vehicle searches commenced more often if the driver was a person of color. Interestingly, the data also showed that the searches found contraband more frequently in vehicles driven by white people.

The state police will turn over the data to the University of Cincinnati for analysis. But it would be wise for the agency to share the raw data with the public, as well. Transparency is key to remediating public confidence in an agency that provides an essential public service.

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The Scranton Times-Tribune. Feb. 1, 2021.

Editorial: City should embrace Biden, rename street

With President Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, Scranton became one of just 40 places in the United States to count a chief executive as a native son.

(Westmoreland County, Virginia, with George Washington and James Monroe; Quincy, Massachusetts, with John and John Quincy Adams; Charles City County, Virginia, with William Henry Harrison and John Tyler; and New York City, with Theodore Roosevelt and Donald Trump, account for two each.)

Well, yes, everyone has to be born somewhere. And it’s not as though Scranton proactively campaigned to have a president born here.

But Biden has not just readily acknowledged the he is a native Scrantonian. He has emphasized, repeatedly and unabashedly, that his upbringing in Scranton is fundamental to his personal values, to his political philosophy, and to his approach to governance.

Yet, some people are reticent about fully embracing Scranton’s status as one of just a few presidential birthplaces.

City Council expects to introduce a resolution soon forming a committee to explore renaming Wyoming Avenue for Biden, which is a good idea.

The president’s childhood home is on North Washington Avenue, but that street is named for President George Washington and it would be unseemly to change that even for a native son.

After Biden’s election, the city renamed an intersection at Fisk Street and North Washington Avenue as “Joe Biden Way,” but the street itself continues to honor the first president.

“The eyes of not only the country but the world have been on Scranton because of Joe Biden, and he’s never forgotten where he’s come from,” council President Bill Gaughan said. “And I think people really take a lot of pride in the fact that we have a president that is from our city and we should celebrate that.”

Scranton should indeed celebrate the distinction, embracing itself for a change to the same degree that Biden has embraced it.

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Erie Times News/Go Erie. Jan. 31, 2021.

Editorial: Good luck, Ms. Beam

We don’t envy Alison Beam.

Governor Tom Wolf’s 34-year-old deputy chief of staff on Jan. 23 assumed the role of acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, taking the job previously held by Dr. Rachel L. Levine, who President Joe Biden has nominated to serve as assistant health secretary.

Beam, who holds a law degree from Drexel University and a degree in Health Policy and Administration from Penn State, steps into her new role at a pivotal moment as the commonwealth and its health department endure withering criticism for a sluggish COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Alison Beam, acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary

We can’t imagine a more pressure-filled position in all of Pennsylvania than Beam’s.

Wolf didn’t mince words when he said her “foremost and immediate focus will be on the strategic distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, making sure Pennsylvania receives as many doses as possible from the federal government, and that the Pennsylvania Department of Health coordinates with hospitals, health centers, county and local governments, and pharmacy partners to make this vaccine as widely available as possible to Pennsylvanians everywhere.”

Welcome to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Ms. Beam. The bathroom is down the hall on the right, the vending machines are by the elevator. And when might you have that “strong, widely available and successful” statewide vaccination strategy that Wolf mentioned?

Because the last few weeks have shown that the current strategy is none of those things.

To be clear, Pennsylvania isn’t getting nearly enough doses of the COVID-19 from the federal government.

But even though the supply has fallen well short of what’s needed, the commonwealth still boosted demand significantly on Jan. 20 by making eligible Pennsylvanians 65 and older and residents age 16 to 64 who have a host of medical conditions including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cancer, Down syndrome, sickle cell disease and obesity. Pregnant women and smokers are also now eligible.

Before the change went into effect, about 1.1 million Pennsylvanians were cleared to receive the vaccination. But with those other groups joining health care personnel and long-term care facility residents at the front of the line, the number grew to 3.5 million overnight.

That was when already-simmering frustrations reached a boiling point for those who’ve been trying to get the shots without any luck.

Meanwhile, hope among many in the next eligibility group that their turn was coming soon began to dim. That group includes first responders, correctional officers, postal service workers, teachers, clergy and grocery store workers.

The problems in Pennsylvania, however, extends beyond the simple supply-demand equation.

Pennsylvania had received 1,564,125 doses of the vaccine as of Tuesday, but only 737,817 doses had found their way into Pennsylvanians’ arms. Pennsylvania ranks 42nd out of 50 states in terms of the percentage of eligible people given at least one shot.

Wolf said he hates “being in the middle of any pack.” He’s being generous. Pennsylvania is close to the back of the pack given those numbers.

We believe part of the problem, which has caused much confusion among residents, has been Pennsylvania’s decentralized approach to vaccinating its eligible population.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health runs the program. It obtains the doses from the federal government and allocates them to hospitals, counties and health care providers. Those organizations then come up with their own plans to distribute them and those practices can vary from site to site.

For instance, some medical centers are booking vaccine appointments through March. Others won’t book anything more than eight days out, citing supply-related uncertainty. Some healthcare providers are attempting to create different priority groups within the so-called Phase 1A priority group. Others are not.

END