ABOVE PHOTO: Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson.
By J. Whyatt Mondesire
Pennsylvania courts are notoriously unjust places.
Unlike appellate judicial decisions coming out of New Jersey, California and New York, our higher courts are among the least quoted and least respected (by
other judges) in the nation.
Currently a state Supreme Court justice is under suspension for a series of criminal violations relating to election law. Just a few years ago another
justice was forced out of office for lying about his drug use.
And only last year, two Scranton area judges were convicted of selling their offices for large bribes received when they sentenced young children to penal
facilities, many times on specious and trumped up charges.
So, last week’s decision by a Republican Commonwealth Court Judge to uphold a hastily written and highly restrictive voter-id law should have surprised no
one. After all, it was a leading GOP legislator who bragged earlier this summer than passage of such a law would help push Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral
votes into Mitt Romney’s column.
But blatant partisanship didn’t matter to Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson who ruled against the lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the new voter-id
law from taking effect in time for the Nov. 6 presidential election.
In a 70-page opinion dripping in political partisanship, Judge Simpson ruled that it really didn’t matter how many thousands of elderly, black, brown or
young Pennsylvanians were denied their franchise because of the inconvenience of the new law. State legislators, he said, had the ultimate right to decide
who votes and who can’t.
Simpson’s ruling also did not rely on any provable need for the new restrictions—allegedly to stop so-called “voter fraud.” That’s because the governor’s
team in defending the law openly admitted there was no record of fraud anywhere in the Commonwealth for more than a decade.
Judge Simpson even went so far as to express faith in a state bureaucracy which has defended its actions by amending certain provisions in the law only
after critics pointed out certain blatant deficiencies. Among the most blatant, that non-driving identification cards were not always available for free.
Last spring, when the law was originally passed, such i.d. cards cost $14.50 and required a birth certificate with a raised seal. Those requirements were
only dropped in the last 60 days amid protests and demonstrations outside a handful of PennDOT offices around the state.
Unchanged however, is the fact that in 10 of the Keystone State’s 67 counties, there are no PennDOT offices and in a handful of others, the offices close
in the early afternoon and have staffs still unfamiliar with the latest rules.
The actual number of persons who are eligible to vote but who lack a picture i.d. card with an expiration date that is issued by a government agency ranges
from 750,000 to over 1.2 million. These are not the NAACP or ACLU numbers but rather “guesstimates” supplied by state officials hired by Gov. Tom Corbett
and testified to in open court in front of Judge Simpson.
In the face of such evidence, Judge Simpson simply shrugged it off. He called the new law a “minor change” adding that state promises that these people
(however many there are) would be okay with the alternative i.d. that is coming in the next several weeks. And if they still had trouble, said a very
callous Simpson, they could always go back to court in their local jurisdictions.
Hey, who said justice in Pennsylvania was fair?
Finally, a just decision it seems would have been based on evidence that a compelling set of circumstances dictated any shrinkage of voting
privileges—regarded by most Americans as among the most fundamental and sacred rights we have as citizens of this country.
In legal terms this is known as the “strict scrutiny” standard, where judges adhere to the letter as well as the intent of the constitution. Judge Simpson
wrote that he did not use the “strict scrutiny” standard in this case. If he had, he admitted, he might have reached a different conclusion.
Why he failed to live up to the strict scrutiny standard on a case of such magnitude was never explained. But when did Keystone State judges stop acting
like so many Keystone cops?