Latino Issues Focus of Supreme Court Candidates
Philadelphia – Just two weeks ahead of a November 3rd election that includes the selection of three Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, a forum at Philadelphia Community College, Saturday, brought together five of the seven candidates.
On issues ranging from the legality of Hazleton’s 2006 controversial immigrant proposal, Sanctuary cities, Voter ID bills to redistricting and English-Only initiatives, the forum touched on issues that are critical to Pennsylvania’s growing Latino community.
In introductory statements, Judge David Wecht – currently a Superior Court Judge – referred to a mother who fled Nazi Germany and would meet her husband in the U.S. Air Force.
A Republican nominated to Allegheny’s Court of Common Pleas by Gov. Rendell, Judith Olson similarly spoke of grandparents who escaped “Bolsheviks” in Russia and Poland.
Administrative Judge of Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, Kevin Dougherty recalled his immigrant ancestors arriving by boat at Delaware and Market Streets, and then directed towards the “Irish ghetto in South Philadelphia.”
“We’re still there” added Dougherty, of an area today populated by many Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants. “But it’s no longer a ghetto. It’s a hard-working community made up of blue collar families.”
Judge Paul Panepinto, also of Philadelphia, stressed his “independence” and as Judge remained “faithful to my oath.”
A Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge highly recommended by the state bar, Judge Christine Donohue likewise cited her own gritty background of growing up in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, where her father was a coal miner and mother a seamstress in a dress factory.
Questioned on the town of Hazleton’s bill to deny permits to landlords or employers who rent to or hire undocumented immigrants, Judge Wecht said, “It’s offensive to our heritage as Americans.” He added that the constitution has protections to combat the attitudes of “temporary majorities.”
Noting the prejudice his own ancestors faced, Kevin Dougherty said such proposals were “repugnant” to any concept of equal justice under the law. As Judges “we protect the voice of the minority.”
Recalling the “Italian, Polish and Irish” immigrant coal miners of her native Carbon County, Judge Donohue observed, “There is a reason America is called a ‘Melting Pot.’ And it’s a good reason and it’s something we should be proud of. To move away from that tradition is a painful thing to see.”
Of Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered districts, Judge Panepinto emphasized his capacity to render a “fair decision based on the law.” Judge Olson also said such cases required judges “check their politics at the door.”
Judge Dougherty argued it was necessary to avoid “dividing communities” and that districts should be “compact and contiguous.”
“At the end of the day, the people should choose the politicians, the politicians should not choose the people,” added Dougherty to applause.
Denouncing the gerrymandered districts of the state as a “travesty” Judge Wecht attributed it to partisan Republicans.
On the so-called Sanctuary policy implemented under Mayor Nutter, endorsed by Democratic Mayoral candidate Kenney- that limited cooperation with ICE detainers- the candidates appeared largely in accord with the city. Judge Dougherty referred to a practice developed in Family Court that protected immigrant children as “dependents.” So “that child could have an opportunity like my child.”
Judge Wecht suggested that the city’s police have “enough to do” without taking on the work of federal officials. Judge Donohue noted that detaining an individual who hasn’t been convicted of a crime is “contrary to our system of justice.”
Another recurring issue, Voter ID legislation, elicited subtle divergence in opinions. For Republican Judge Olson: “There is no room in any election but one person, one vote.”
Judge Dougherty acknowledged there are elected officials who seek to impose burdens on the “ability to get into the voting booth,” for socio-economic reasons. “The question is, are those avenues legal and will they stand” constitutional scrutiny.
“We should be making it easier to vote,” Judge Donohue said. “We need to be certain that citizens in this commonwealth are given access to the polls that is easy.”
Citing the Republican opposition to efforts of Governor Wolf and State Secretary Cortes to permit voter registration on-line, Mr. Wecht said, “Republicans don’t want (Philadelphians) to vote or even know that there’s an election.”