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Opinion: Lansford native writes majority opinion backing mail-in voting law

Lansford native Christine Donohue’s majority opinion backing Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law is arguably the most important she has written since she won election to the state Supreme Court in 2015.

The high court upheld the law that allows all voters to cast ballots by mail in this November’s general election and in all future elections. The vote was 5-2, with all five Democrats voting “yes” and both Republicans dissenting.

By its action, the Democratic majority overturned a lower-court ruling issued in January that found Pennsylvania’s Act 77 to have violated the state’s constitution.

When Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bipartisan approved Act 77 in 2019, it was hailed as one of the most important to Pennsylvania election laws in nearly eight decades. Now, three years later, most Republicans, even those who voted in favor of Act 77, have had a change of heart and are trying to nullify some of its provisions.

This effort took root in the 2020 presidential election where former President Donald Trump and his supporters claimed without proof that there was widespread fraud in the balloting, much of it triggered by irregularities in mail-in balloting. Of particular irony is the fact that the lawsuit that was heard by the courts was brought by a group of Republicans, many of whom helped pass Act 77.

Among the Republicans who supported the legislation during its successful trip through the General Assembly was Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, the GOP gubernatorial nominee this year, who now fiercely opposes mail-in voting and vows to engineer sweeping changes to the voting laws if elected.

In the majority opinion, Donohue wrote: “We find no restriction in our Constitution on the General Assembly’s ability to create universal mail-in voting.” While the expansion of voting rights is not guaranteed to be permanent, she wrote that the General Assembly made a lawful policy decision that was based on the authority authorized in the state constitution. By doing so, Donohue wrote, that it “affords all qualified voters the convenience of casting their votes by mail.”

Despite the high court’s ruling, Republicans do not plan to quietly accept this as the final word on the subject. Instead, they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is unlikely that even if the challenge is successful that it would apply to November’s election.

There is also a separate case that looks to overturn Act 77 concerning a technicality known as the “nonseverability” clause. Such a clause means that if any provision of the act is held to be invalid that all of the other provisions of the legislation would be considered null and void, too.

Appellate court justices in Pennsylvania serve 10-year terms after which they can stand for re-election on a retention basis. This means that candidates for re-election would be on the ballot where voters would be asked whether they should be retained for another 10-year term, yes or no.

Since Donohue is 69 and would be 72 when her current term is up, it is unlikely that she would seek re-election since mandatory retirement age on the high court is 75. The retirement age used to be 70, but voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 raising the retirement age by five years.

Donohue is a 1974 graduate of East Stroudsburg University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and earned her law degree at Duquesne University School of Law in Allegheny County. She was in private practice for 27 years (1980-2007) when she was elected to be an associate justice on the state Superior Court.

She was born at the Coaldale Hospital and grew up in Lansford, where her father was miner and member of the United Mine Workers union, and her mother was a seamstress. She attended SS. Peter and Paul Elementary School in Lansford and is a graduate of Marian Catholic.

She first came on the Democrats’ radar as a candidate for state Superior Court, one of the busiest in the United States, where she was involved in about 7,000 cases during her tenure. She was part of a three-candidate Democratic sweep for the state Supreme Court in 2015.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.