Pennsylvania Constitution in the News - Current (2016-2017)
On August 3, 2017, John J. Murphy III, a partner at Stradley Ronon's Philadelphia Office, wrote an opinion column in the Philadelphia Legal Journal stating that the current property tax system is fraught with inequities among school districts. The author states that this is due to the fact that Pennsylvania does not require periodic reassessments, and the fact that counties are permitted to use a base year for valuing all properties within their jurisdictions. The author urges the state legislature to address these inequities by revising tax assessment laws that would require periodic reassessments.
On August 2, 2017, Rick Lee of the Lebanon Daily News reported that a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would eliminate property taxes would be presented to voters on the November 7th, 2017 ballot. The amendment would exempt the total assessed value of residential properties from taxes; however, commercial properties would be unaffected.
On July 30, 2017, Paula Knudsen and Brad Bumsted of the St. Joseph News-Press (MO) reported that more than half of Pennsylvania legislators are earning income in addition to salaries as lawmakers, which creates several conflicts of interests. The authors also reported that 20% of legislators are also attorneys and are not required to disclose the names of their clients.
On July 28, 2017, Colin McNickle of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the state legislature has passed a budget but did not pass a spending plan, which has led Pennsylvania Constitutional scholars to state that the legislature and governor are in violation of Pennsylvania's balanced budget requirement as set out in Article VIII, Section 13 of the Pa. Constitution.
On July 17, 2017, J. Justin Wilson of the Institute for Justice reported that AirBnB is filing a law suit against the Pennsylvania Real Estate Commission arguing that the law requiring a real estate broker's license in order to manage vacation rental property is a violation of Commonwealth citizens' right to earn an honest living.
On July 12, 2017, Angela Couloumbis and Liz Navratil of Philly.com reported that Governor Wolf believes he acted legally when he allowed a $32 billion spending plan to lapse into law without a budget passed by the legislature. Professor Bruce Ledewitz of Duquesne Law is quoted as stating that the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget has not really been enforced in the courts.
On June 29, 2017, P.J. D'Annunzio of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded guilty to taking bribes, and subsequently resigned from his office. Williams agreed to a plea deal with federal prosecutors in which 28 of the 29 charges against him were withdrawn, and he would plead guilty to a single charge of bribery. Williams faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000. Judge Paul. S. Diamond then rejected bail for Williams, pending sentencing in October.
On June 25, 2017, former Allegheny County Controller Frank Lucchino wrote an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette advocating that smaller Allegheny County municipalities disincorporate and take advantage of county-provided services, in exchange for a county services fee. This would permit distressed municipalities to avoid having their finances controlled by the state under Act 47.
On June 16, 2017, Pepper Hamilton LLP published a blogpost at JD Supra asking if county prosecutors will be subject to Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Laws. The blogpost point out that the Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case, Miller v. Cty. of Ctr., 158 A.3d 1236 (Pa. 2016) (granting appeal), where the court will decide whether district attorney offices are "judicial agencies" under Right-to-Know Laws. The case arose out of criminal defense attorneys seeking telephone records for Stacy Parks Miller, the district attorney for Centre County, and her assistant district attorneys, to see if prosecutors were having improper ex parte communications with the judiciary.
On June 7, 2017, Stephanie Peet and Timothy M. McCarthy reported in the National Law Review that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed, with prejudice, a lawsuit by The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia seeking a preliminary injunction against Philadelphia's wage history law. The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia v. City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, No. 2:17-cv-01548 (E.D. Pa. May 30, 2017). The ordinance prohibits employers in Philadelphia from inquiring about the wage history of prospective employees. The Greater Chamber of Congress has argued that this violates First Amendment rights of employers.
On June 5, 2017, Carol Kunihol, Co-Director of Fair Districts PA, penned an op-ed column in the Scranton Times-Tribune that advocated for two bills before the Pennsylvania legislature, SB 22, and HB 722, that would change the way the Commonwealth draws legislative districts. The bills would amend the Pa. Constitution to assign the process of drawing legislative and congressional districts to an impartial and independent redistricting commission.
On May 12, 2017, Zack Needles and P.J. D'Annunzio of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Philadelphia Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield ordered that a private criminal complaint be filed against an Amtrak engineer involved in a 2015 derailment. Originally, the Philadelphia District Attorney's office declined to prosecute against the engineer, and in compliance with Judge Neifield's order, referred the matter to the Attorney General's office who filed the charges on May 12.
On May 12, 2017, P.J. D'Annunzio of the Legal Intelligencer reported that the trial for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was delayed three weeks by U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond after additional corruption charges were filed against Mr. Williams.
On April 28, 2017, J.D. Prose of the Beaver County Times reported House Bill 671, a bill that would give gun owners and lobbyist groups such as the National Rifle Association standing to file suit against municipalities that pass local gun ordinances, passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives the day after the Pennsylvania Senate passed a similar measure.
On April 26, 2017, the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP published an article on JP Supra stating that the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia filed a law suit in the United States District Court for the E.D. of Pennsylvania. The Chamber claims that the ordinance places too heavy of a burden on businesses and will reduce hiring.
On March 10, 2017, Maya Earls of the Philadelphia Tribune reported that a recent report by the Education Law Center found that years of state underfunding has led to widespread inequalities in Pennsylvania public schools. Deborah Gordon Klehr, director of the Education Law Center, said that, “Of the funding we have and we do appropriate, Pennsylvania is doing it in ways that reinforce inequality.” Pennsylvania is one of fourteen states that funds education regressively, causing schools to heavily rely on local funding. Governor Wolfe has propositioned an increase in basic education funding by $125 million in his 2017-2018 budget proposal.
On March 8, 2017, The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) issued a news release announcing that it is “protesting the state of Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional funding of Christian symbols on a Catholic campus.” The announcement stems from taxpayer complaints that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) contributed taxpayer funds toward the construction of an “overtly Christian bridge” on Villanova University’s campus. The bridge is alleged to include four large, metal Latin crosses on top of stone pillars. FFRF is asking PennDOT to reconsider the “misguided funding decision” and either request removal of the crosses from the bridge’s design or withdraw its funding.
On February 28, 2017, Dave Sutor of The Tribune-Democrat reported that two separate bills to extend the statutes of limitation for victims of child sexual abuse have been introduced to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Both of the bills would eliminate all age limits for criminal actions and civil lawsuits against alleged abusers going forward; however, they differ in respect to retroactivity. The House bill includes a two-year window in which past victims may file civil complaints against their alleged abusers. The Senate’s version of this bill does not contain any such retroactivity. Those in opposition to retroactivity believe that provision would violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause.
See House, Senate Child Abuse Bills Both Address Statute of Limitations, Differ on Retroactivity
On February 7, 2017, Chris Morran of The Consumerist reported that many Pennsylvania state lawmakers have been pushing back against the Philadelphia soda tax. The tax went into effect on January 1, 2017, and since the imposition of the tax, state lawmakers have been calling it an “impermissible sales tax” that “sets a dangerous precedent.” Along with arguing that the soda tax violates the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, lawmakers are now alleging that the soda tax violates Pennsylvania’s Sterling Act.
In Commonwealth v. Veon, 150 A.3d 435 (Pa. 2016), Justice Wecht, writing for the Court, held that the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development is not a “direct victim” nor a reimbursable compensating agency under 18 Pa.C.S. § 1106, and, as a result, is not entitled to restitution. This holding is contrary to the holding in Commonwealth v. Perzel, 116 A.3d 670 (Pa. Super. 2015), also authored by then-Judge Wecht. Justice Wecht addressed the reasoning for this contradiction in Footnote 31 in Veon, stating that the contrary conclusion was due to the fact that the panel in Perzel was “precedentially bound by the Superior Court’s prior decision in [Veon]” which it now reverses.
On January 19, 2017, Dylan Segelbaum of the York Daily Record reported that the York County District Attorney’s Office instructed law enforcement agencies to charge people with obstructing the administration of law if they refuse to have blood drawn after being shown a warrant for a blood sample. The action is in response to the United States Supreme Court case Birchfield v. North Dakota, which held that people could not face additional criminal penalties if they refused to submit a blood sample without a warrant.
On December 20, 2016, Zack Needles of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Angeles Roca and Municipal Court Judge Dawn Segal have been removed from office for ethics violations. Both judges were suspended prior to removal for their involvement in ex parte communications with former Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr., who was later found guilty for fixing cases of political donors.
See Philadelphia Judges Roca, Segal Removed From Office
On December 19, 2016, Max Mitchell of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Allegheny County Judge R. Stanton Wettick, 78, has retired. This is a compulsory retirement as under state law the cutoff age for senior judges is 78. Judge Wettick has presided over nearly all discovery disputes in Allegheny County for the past four decades. Judge Robert J. Colville will preside over discovery court in lieu of Judge Wettick.
See Judge Wettick, Leading Voice on Discovery, To Retire
On December 19, 2016, Alison Burdo of the Philadelphia Business Journal reported that Judge Gary S. Glazer has dismissed the beverage industry’s lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia over the soda tax. Judge Glazer held that the soda tax cannot be considered a sales tax and that it does not violate the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Plaintiffs’ attorney, Shanin Specter of Philadelphia firm Kline & Specter, has announced that the plaintiffs plan to appeal. As a result of the judge’s ruling, the Philadelphia soda tax will go into effect during the month of January 2017. On February 15, 2017, Zack Needles of the Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected a King's Bench petition by the city of Philadelphia in the legal battle over the soda tax. The case is currently on appeal to the Commonwealth Court.
See Justices Reject Phila.'s King's Bench Petition in Soda Tax Case
On December 11, 2016, Dave Sutor of The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.), reported that a court, after finding that a “protective order limited solely to pre-trial civil discovery does not affront . . . Art. 1, Sec. 11,” unsealed 30-year-old pretrial records in the sexual abuse case filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
On November 29, 2016, Max Mitchell of The Legal Intelligencer reported that federal Judge Gerald A. McHugh of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania made a statement in a footnote to a woman’s habeas corpus petition that may open a floodgate for defense attorneys in cases, in light of the “Porngate” scandal. In the footnote, Judge McHugh stated, in relevant part, “I take judicial notice that two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices have admitted viewing and sharing racist and sexist pornography as they reviewed Pennsylvania Supreme Court appeals, including the period of time when petitioner’s PCRA was pending. . . The fact that two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices recreationally viewed – on state computers and on state time – numerous depictions of graphic sexual violence with captions degrading African-Americans and endorsing abuse of women is cause for grave concern given petitioner’s background and its potential relevance to her claims for relief.”
See Pennyslvania’ s “Porngate” Scandal Could Affect Convictions
On November 28, 2016, Lizzy McClellan of The Legal Intelligencer reported that information gathered from impeachment hearings for Kathleen Kane have offered insight into the necessary reform of the office. The hearings will help new Attorney General Josh Shapiro, separate the systematic problems from the ones specifically associated with Kane.
See Post-Resignation Kane Hearings Could Bring Oversight, Reform
On November 10, 2016, Lizzy McLellan and Max Mitchell of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Democrat Josh Shapiro was elected as Pennsylvania’s next attorney general and that voters chose to raise the retirement age for Pennsylvania’s judges to 75. The passing of the judicial retirement age referendum is seen as increasing the stability of the courts as experienced judges will keep their seats. The most immediate impact will be on the State Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor will be eligible to continue for five more years.
See New Judicial Retirement Age Seen As Increasing Stability on the Courts
On November 2, 2016, Emily Opilo of Morning Call reported that Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has proposed a 21% income tax increase for 2017. Mayor Pawlowski’s 2017 budget relies on $3.9 million in revenue from casino host fees, which the state legislature has yet to approve. The State Supreme Court recently struck down a law requiring casinos to pay a 2% host fee of all slot revenues. The Mayor hopes to fill this budget gap by raising the income tax. Meanwhile, in Dauphin County, the Hollywood Casino has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the county to maintain its local share assessment payments until at least June 30 to “ease the communities’ concerns about these critical revenues pending a long term legislative solution.”
On October 14, 2016, Christine Manganas of the Pittsburgh Business Times reported that the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s recently implemented oil and gas regulations in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The new regulations required by Chapter 78a, which regulates unconventional oil and gas wells, require additional measures for drilling gas wells, notice to agencies if well sites were to be located within a certain distance, identification of active and inactive wells, and the plugging of any wells determined to be abandoned. MSC stated that, “there are aspects in the provisions that are onerous, costly and provide little environmental benefit from our perspective,” and that the regulations contradict Act 13. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is currently reviewing the MSC’s challenge to the Commonwealth’s regulations.
David R. Fine, a partner and appellate attorney at K&L Gates wrote an opinion column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 26, 2016 that urged voters to choose to raise the retirement age for judges in the commonwealth to 75 years old. Finem makes the case that the age itself is seemingly arbitrary, and the increase in life expectancy and advances in medicinal technology render those in their early 70s just as intellectually capable as someone five or 10 years younger. On October 28, 2016, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial urging voters to vote no on the same ballot measure, calling the language of the question vague and confusing to voters. The Inquirer points out that the language gives the impression that a retirement age does not currently exist, and would stand to directly benefit the current Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, and the wording of the language was drawn up by Republicans who control both houses of the legislature.
On October 25th, Craig R. McCoy and Angela Couloumbis of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was sentenced to 10-23 months in jail. Kane was released after posting bail pending an appeal of her conviction on perjury and criminal conspiracy, along with other charges.
On October 17, 2016, Caitlin Sinett of FOX43, York , reported that Charles Wasko resigned as mayor of West York after it was revealed that Wasko made several racist Facebook posts to his personal account. Wasko refused to apologize and initially made several demands to West York council in exchange for his resignation, however, Wasko ultimately resigned without the conditions being met.
On October 9, 2016, Ron Leonardi of the Erie Times-News reported that in response to the recent decision handed down in Mount Airy #1, LLC. v. Pa. Dep’t of Revenue, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2174 (Pa. October 4, 2016), that the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority’s executive director, Perry Wood, plans to lobby several state legislators to push for a new state gaming law that he hopes will maintain previous county gaming revenue allocations. The state Supreme Court is giving state legislators four months to fix the gaming law and Wood stated that if this cannot be fixed the Erie County budget will have a $5.5 million funding gap because of it.
On September 28, 2016, Maria Panaritis of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the House intends to rewrite the child sex-abuse bill that would give victims the right to sue for decades-old abuses and send it back to the Senate. The decision to reintroduce the bill comes after new State Attorney General Bruce Beemer stated in an interview that he believes the retroactive civil statute of limitations change for child sex crimes was constitutional. Six Dioceses in the state are currently being investigated by a statewide grand jury to see how church leaders handled decades of child sex abuse allegations.
On September 20, 2016, Katie Colaneri reported on Newsworks that Former Justices Castille and Zappala, along with Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague filed a second lawsuit on September 19, 2016 in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court claiming that the way the judicial retirement age ballot question is phrased would result in “a fraud on the Pennsylvania electorate.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced on September 16, 2016 that it would not reconsider its deadlocked decision on the ballot wording.
On September 14th, Alison Burdo of the Philadelphia Business Journal reported that the American Beverage Association, and other trade groups that represent beverage distributors and retailors filed suit in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, claiming that a 1.5% tax on soda within the City of Philadelphia will cause a dramatic loss in revenue to businesses. The association claims that the tax violates state law because it duplicates the state sales tax.
On September 11th, Joan Duvall Flynn of the Pennsylvania NAACP wrote an opinion column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette advocating a case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that argues that the funding of school districts based on local property taxes violates the state constitutional provision requiring a “thorough and efficient system of public education” and equal rights protections.
On September 5th, Robert Swift of the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice, reported on a bill before the state legislature that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT persons in the workplace, housing, use of public accommodations, and post-secondary educational institutions. The bill was first introduced 12 years ago, but has yet to reach the floor of either chamber of the legislature.
Wallace McKelvey of PennLive.com reports on August 30, 2016 that Bruce Beemer, a former top aide who testified against former attorney general Kathleen Kane, was unanimously confirmed as interim Attorney Aeneral to replace her. Governor Tom Wolf nominated Beemer the day after Kane’s resignation became official.
Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reports on August 25, 2016, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in which, Lomas v. Kravitz where Judge Thomas C. Branca of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas had been involved in the case as an attorney, and had a financial interest in the outcome. The defendant in the case moved to have Judge Thomas P. Rogers and the rest of the judges on the bench recuse themselves due to the financial interest of their colleague.
Susan Spicka, Executive Director or Education Voters of PA, penned an opinion column on August 21, 2016 for the Public Opinion in Chambersburg urging the state legislature to adequately fund local school districts. The author bemoaned the fact that while all students in the Commonwealth are held to the same standards, however, school districts are primarily funded through local taxation, giving an advantage to more affluent districts. Six school districts have filed suit to declare that the current funding system violates the Pennsylvania constitution. See William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Educ., 114 A.3d 456 (Pa. Cmwlth. Ct. 2015)
On August 16, 2016, Amy B. Wang of the Washington Post reported that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced her resignation from her office. Kane, who was elected in 2012, was found guilty on nine criminal charges, including two felony counts of perjury. She faces up to seven years in prison on each of the perjury charges. At her trial, Kane did not testify nor did her legal counsel call any witnesses to testify on her behalf.
On August 16, 2016, Laura McCrystal, Craig R. McCoy, and Angela Couloumbis of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was convicted of perjury, obstruction, and other smaller crimes. Governor Tom Wolf called on Kane to resign from her post “immediately.” The conviction stems from a leak of grand jury documents for the purposes of a news story in the Philadelphia Daily News that was critical of former state prosecutor Frank Fina, and then lying about her actions under oath.
On August 2, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed an application for extraordinary relief and King’s Bench Power on August 1, 2016, one week before the start of her trial. Kane asked the court to suppress the evidence and testimony that the 35th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury had collected, and to quash the criminal charges filed by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. According to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, if the Supreme Court issues a stay in the criminal matter, a delay would occur. The Court rejected the application on August 5, 2016.
On July 29, 2016, Kathy Boccella of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear a suit filed by retired Supreme Court justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr., as well as lawyer Richard A. Sprague. The suit challenges the wording of the referendum on changing the retirement age of judges in the Commonwealth, calling it “deceitful” because of an implication that the electorate would be imposing term limits on judgers rather than expanding their time on the court by five years.
On July 29, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy issued an order blocking Attorney General Kathleen Kane from presenting evidence of a selective and vindictive prosecution at trial. Criminal defense attorneys stated that this order makes it more difficult to defend Kane, and opens up the case to post-trial appeals. Kane’s trial is set to begin August 8, 2016.
On July 21, 2016, Joanna Walters of The Guardian UK wrote a piece chronicling past career decisions of Bruce Castor Jr. and how these past decisions represent him to victims’ advocates. Castor has previously declined to prosecute Bill Cosby, recommended against appealing the dismissal of charges against former Penn State leaders accused of covering up Sandusky’s sex abuse scandal, and testified against a state reform proposal to help past victims of Catholic priests sues the pedophiles and the church. Victims’ advocates are enraged that Castor has risen as a leading official in the state. Professor Bruce Ledewitz of Duquesne University commented that Castor is basically an unelected attorney general; however, he cautioned against interpreting Castor’s legal moves as a pattern of bias against rape victims.
On July 21, 2016, Brad Bumsted and Mike Wereschagin of the Tribune-Review reported that the lobbying industry is under increased scrutiny as a result of a federal investigation. The increase in scrutiny comes as a result of lobbyist John Estey, former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell’s chief of staff, pleading guilty to wire fraud. Those seeking to reform the industry are pushing for full spending disclosure, a gift ban, and an end to lobbyists running legislative campaigns.
On July 21, 2016, Angela Couloumbis reported in the Philadelphia Daily News that two former Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court justices and a prominent lawyer in the region filed suit to challenge a change in wording to the ballot question on raising the retirement age for judges, stating it is “an attempt to hoodwink voters and influence the outcome.” The original ballot question asked voters whether they would approve of raising the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. The new language asks voters whether they would approve of requiring judges to retire at age 75. The complaint states, “the ballot question . . . is misleadingly designed to garner ‘yes’ votes from voters who are actually in favor of restricting the terms of judges and justices, but are unaware that the proposed amendment will have the opposite effect.” Former justices Castille and Zappala along with Attorney Sprague ask that the Supreme Court take up the matter on an emergency basis since time is critical in order to advertise the language used in ballot questions at least three months before the November 8 election. The Court did so on July 27, 2016.
On July 15, 2016, in a commentary piece for the Philadelphia Daily News, General Assembly member, Mike Sturla, discussed Pennsylvania’s C-minus rating on the American Society of Civil Engineers for infrastructure. Sturla stated that the rating is worrisome because Pennsylvania recently enacted a gas tax that places Pennsylvania 11th highest in gas prices. Pennsylvania is in desperate need of funding to fix its deteriorating infrastructure. $814 million, which was supposed to be allocated to fix bridges and roads, was taken this year from the Motor License Fund to fund free state police coverage to municipalities that did not opt to pay for local or regional police coverage. Sturla stated that while it is legitimate to use MLF funds to pay for the police to enforce traffic laws and do routine road patrols, the police provide more services such as handling minor misdemeanors, homicide complaints, and other local disturbances, that using these funds for those reasons violates Art. VIII, Sec. 11 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which states that gas taxes and motor license fees are restricted to use for specific transportation projects related to public highways and bridges.
On July 11, 2016, Angela Couloumbis reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Governor Tom Wolf will allow the $31.5 billion spending plan the Legislature has sent to him to become law. State law requires that the budget be balanced and there is currently no proposed revenue plan to support the current budget. In justifying his decision not to veto the budget, Governor Wolf said that he is confident the Legislature will timely deliver a revenue plan. Drew Crompton, the Senate’s top Republican lawyer, stated that, “this is a new frontier” for the State and no one could remember the last time the state had not met the constitutional demand for a balanced budget.
In Orie v. Zappala, 2016 WL 3636898 Slip Copy (W. D. Pa. 2016), United States Magistrate Judge Robert Mitchell dismissed the petition of Janine M. Orie for a writ of Habeas Corpus and denied a certificate of appealability because she did not receive any additional penalty for the conviction she was challenging. For the court to have jurisdiction to entertain a habeas corpus petition, the petitioner must be “in custody” on the challenged conviction at the time his petition is filed and Orie was not and never will be “in custody” on the conviction she challenged in this case.
On July 7, 2016, Mark Belko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reported that Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court asking the justices to order an end to the collection of a “local share tax.” Rivers Casino opened in 2009 and has paid over $10 million a year to the City of Pittsburgh as part of the taxes it pays on its slot machine revenue. Rivers Casino argues that the tax imposes unequal rates of taxation and thus, violates the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Casino is seeking to invalidate the tax and to obtain a refund of the funds it has already paid. This case has since been dropped. On December 21, 2016, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced that Rivers Casino will pay the City of Pittsburgh $10 million next year to replace the local share revenues lost in the Supreme Court decision.
On July 1, 2016, Tom Fontaine of the Tribune-Review reported that U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel issued an order that significantly reduces the number of signatures required for minor-party candidates to seek statewide office in Pennsylvania. Republican and Democratic candidates are required to collect at least 2,000 signatures on nomination petitions to get on their parties’ primary ballots. Independent and third-party candidates cannot be on primary ballots and must collect at least 2 percent of the largest number of votes case for an elected candidate in the previous election to get on the November General Election ballot. Judge Stengal set requirements that will apply “until such time as the Pennsylvania Legislature enacts a permanent measure amending or modifying the process” for minor-party candidates to get on ballots. The order requires Constitution, Green, and Libertarian candidates to collect at least 5,000 signatures and candidates for lieutenant governor, treasurer, auditor general, attorney general, Supreme Court justice, Superior Court judge, and Commonwealth Court require at least 2,500 signatures.
On June 30, 2016, Carley Mossbrook of the Tribune-Review reported that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to strip a retroactivity provision from a bill to extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits in child sex abuse cases. The stripped amendment would have allowed victims older than 30 years of age, for whom the statute of limitations has expired to file lawsuits. The bill was approved by the House but failed 9-4 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with those in the majority questioning the constitutionality of allowing a victim of sexual abuse to file a civil case after the statute of limitations has expired.
On June 28, 2016, Mark Scolforo of the Associated Press reported that a legislative subcommittee investigating the possible impeachment of Attorney General Kathleen Kane voted to authorize its chairman to issue subpoenas. Rep. Todd Stephens has the ability to demand documents and testimony and has started a process of seeking secret grand jury records and protecting possible witnesses against retaliation. AG Kane will be allowed to address the subcommittee if she chooses. The subcommittee declined to say when the first subpoenas will be issued, but expects to make a recommendation to the Judiciary Committee. AG Kane is not seeking re-election and will be out of office at the end of the year.
On June 24, 2016, Max Mitchell of The Legal Intelligencer reported that several attorneys in the Philadelphia area appeared before Judge Teresa Sarmina to discuss delays in court-appointed Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) cases. The discussion broke down into heated conversations about the low payment that the court-appointed attorneys receive, the delays in that payment, the need for more PCRA-experienced attorneys, pressure from judges and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to move the PCRA cases along, and the inability of anyone in the courtroom to do much about these issues. The criminal divisions of many courts are experiencing a backlog due to the amount of PCRA petitions. Judges have reached out to other attorneys to ask for help in clearing the backlog and to compensate for the dwindling amount of PCRA attorneys, however, in response many attorneys are claiming that they are too inexperienced with the PCRA and are asking to be taken off of the court-appointed list.
On June 23, 2016, John Finnerty of CNHI Harrisburg Bureau, reported that Governor Tom Wolf is calling lawmakers into a special session to address the opioid crisis that is plaguing the state. More than 2,500 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014. The special session will address a number of bill proposals to combat the abuse of prescription drugs and heroin. Under Art. IV, Sec. 12 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the governor can convene the General Assembly on extraordinary occasions by proclamation. When such a session is called, its members can only consider legislation on the specific subjects designated by the governor. The last special session of the Legislature was called in 2009 by Gov. Ed Rendell to focus on transportation funding.
On June 19, 2016, Joe Napsha of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that the Penn Township Planning and Zoning Commission approved a revised zoning ordinance and zoning map. The proposed changes are not "substantially different" than the one created by the township in October 2014. Public discussion of the ordinance centered on the regulation of oil and gas companies that deploy fracking technology. One citizen advocated an opposing position that included language of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that guarantees the public right to clean air, pure water, and preservation of the environment.
On June 16, 2016, in an editorial to the Philadelphia Inquirer, former-Justice Ronald D. Castille opined that Mayor Kenney and the Philadelphia City Council are in the process of violating the Pennsylvania Constitution by enacting a soda tax. Philadelphia’s City Council recently voted to pass a tax of 1.5 cents per ounce on both regular and diet soda. The tax will be used to pay for pre-K expansion as well as to improve parks, libraries, and recreation centers. Former-Justice Castille assails the tax as a “thinly disguised sales tax.” He states that it is a sales tax because “if no one purchases one of these beverages, there is no tax consequence. If a purchaser does buy one of these beverages, then a tax arises because of the sale.” The former-Justice says that since the tax will be passed on to the consumer, that implicates the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. He states that since a distributor in Reading or Altoona would not have a similar tax on the distribution of soda beverages, consumers in other counties do not have to pay a similar tax on these beverages and thus, is a violation of the uniformity clause. The tax is expected to become effective in January of 2017.
On June 16, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Governor Tom Wolf announced his nominees for 16 interim judicial appointments to Pennsylvania’s courts of common pleas. Up to this point, many common pleas courts were shorthanded creating heavier workloads, scheduling concerns, and delays in hearing certain types of cases. The recent appointments bring relief to many current-serving common pleas judges. These judges are optimistic that the Senate will confirm the nominees and with the help of the newly-appointed judges, the caseloads will begin to lighten and the courts will begin to function as normal.
On June 15, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of The Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Superior Court has quashed an appeal by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. AG Kane argued that the charges against her should have been dismissed, and that the entire Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas bench should recuse itself from her case. The Superior Court quashed AG Kane’s appeal in a one-line order. AG Kane also argued that she was the victim of a “selective and vindictive” prosecution.
On June 14, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Governor Tom Wolf bypassed the recommendations of his advisory commission in selecting Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Sallie Updyke Mundy to fill a vacancy on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Through his selection of Mundy, Gov. Wolf chose not to nominate Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Leon W. Tucker. Tucker was at the top of the advisory committee’s list as the most highly qualified candidate. Tucker, an African-American, would have also brought diversity to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Mundy will take the seat of former Justice J. Michael Eakin.
On June 6, 2016, a column authored by Stanley J. Parker and B. Lafe Metz, Shareholders in the Pittsburgh Office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, was published in which it challenges the characterization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Mesivtah Eitz Chaim of Bobov v. Pike County Board of Property Assessment, 44 A.3d 3 (Pa. 2012) as significantly altering Pennsylvania charitable tax exemption law in a way that makes it more difficult for charities to obtain or preserve property tax exemptions. The firm argues instead that the case follows the decision in Community Options v. Board of Property Assessment, 813 A.2d 680, 683 (Pa. 2002) that held that the constitutional exemption test for determining if an organization is a purely public charity is primary, and the statutory test is secondary.
On May 26, 2016, Brian O'Neill of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that John Quigley, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection resigned the week of May 16, 2016 due to inappropriate emails sent on his private account. Mr. Quigley sent an email to favored advocacy groups using offensive language and asking them to help him get a Senate environmental regulatory bill vetoed.
On May 13, 2016, Evan Grossman of the Pennsylvania Independent reported that after release of his audit report, State Auditor, Eugene DePasquale, said that the State needs an oversight board to better run charter schools. This board would be in charge of "accountability and oversight" and would help these schools run more effectively. DePasquale also recommends reinstituting charter school tuition reimbursement from the state to offset charter school tuition paid by school districts. Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, says that while DePasquale's report raises many good points, his proposals also "ignore the Pennsylvania Constitution . . . because the report seems to put districts ahead of educational opportunities and argues against due process for charter schools."
On April 27, 2016, Riley Yates of The Morning Call reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will decide whether Pennsylvania can force hundreds of ex-convicts to register as sex offenders years after the crimes for which they were convicted. Three men previously convicted of child molestation argue that the Legislature overstepped its bounds when it expanded Megan's Law in 2012 and retroactively applied the new revisions.
See Sex Offenders Get High Court Hearing ** Justices Will Look at Retroactive Megan's Law Requirements Forcing Lifelong Registration
On April 22, 2016, Pa. House Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hall of York County wrote an opinion column lauding an education funding bill that was passed by a two-thirds majority in both the Pa. Senate and the Pa. House of Representatives, giving the bill a veto-proof majority. The bill changes the formula for spreading state tax funds to the school districts across the state, and funnels more money into suburban and rural districts, away from urban districts, such as Philadelphia city schools.
On April 15, 2016, John Gismondi of the Allegheny County Bar Association publication, Lawyers Journal published a column regarding a ballot question on the primary ballot that would amend the Pa. Constitution and raise the mandatory retirement age for state judges from 70 to 75 years of age. Grismondi cites several reasons for his support of the measure. First, "having judges with more wisdom and institutional knowledge should permit judges to process cases more quickly" and reduce judicial error. Second, when age 70 was set as the retirement age, life expectancy was 69.9 years and with the increase in life expectancy to 78.9, an increase to 75 is proportional. Third, increasing the retirement age enhances the quality of judicial candidates for elected office. Fourth, it would save tax dollars to have judges paying into pension systems at age 70-75 instead of drawing from it. Lastly, if any judge were to suffer from diminished mental capacity, action could be taken by the Judicial Conduct Board or the Court of Judicial Discipline, which did not exist when the age 70 limit was enacted.
See Opinion: Raising the Retirement Age for [Pa.] Judges is a Good Idea
On April 6, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, Lynn Marks, has stepped down. Marks, who held the position for 25 years, resigned to pursue other professional activities. Her successor, Maida R. Milone, has significant experience with for-profit and nonprofit organizations and is an attorney, though she has not practiced law in recent years. Milone has extensive leadership experience through her position as vice president of business development and strategic planning at the Devereux Foundation and other leadership positions at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and The Center for Emerging Visual Arts. PMC's mission is to ensure that its state judges and the court systems operate with fairness.
See Marks steps down as court reform group leader
On April 1, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that a person with knowledge of the Attorney General's Office stated that Attorney General Kathleen Kane directed the grand jury investigation against Centre County District Attorney, Stacy Parks Miller, be "killed". Parks Miller was facing charges for allegedly forging a judge's signature and for using office staff and resources to perform political work, but was exonerated in July after the grand jury concluded its investigation. A spokesman for the Office of Attorney General said that there is no truth to allegations of Kane's improper involvement.
See Sources: AG Kane Urged No Charges for DA Parks Miller
On March 29, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane's motion for, among other things, recusal of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas bench was denied. Kane alleged that three of the judges have a personal stake in her case such that their recusal is warranted. She also moved to quash the evidence and testimony from the grand jury, claiming it was unlawful, as well as the charges against her because the prosecutors did not provide a bill of particulars and the counts were impaired by duplicity and multiplicity. Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy denied all of those requests. Judge Demchick-Alloy deferred decision on the quashing of charges relating to Kane's allegations that her criminal charges were the result of a "selective and vindictive prosecution," until arguments on Kane's motion to file her defense under seal.
See Kane denied bench recusal, quashal of charges
On March 29, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane hired Bruce L. Castor Jr. as solicitor general. Kane's spokesman, Chuck Ardo, clarified that Castor remains second in line of succession while Bruce Beemer is still the first deputy attorney general. Castor served as the district attorney in Montgomery County from 2000 to 2008 and is currently a partner at Rogers Castor. Ardo also stated that Castor "will wall himself off from any cases that he may somehow have been involved in" in order to prevent any potential conflicts. Castor has garnered some publicity lately for his decision not to prosecute Bill Cosby in 2005.
See Kane hires Castor as Solicitor General
On March 28, 2016, Peter Hall of the Morning Call reported that Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, intends to introduce legislation that would extend the current statute of limitations by two years for sexual abuse survivors. Currently, Pennsylvania law allows victims to file civil lawsuits by age 30 and criminal charges by age 50. This push for an extension, which has been successful in eight other states, is fueled by recent charges that Catholic Church officials conspired to cover up sexual abuse of children by priests. Opponents contend that the law would strip defendants of a constitutionally entitled defense by adding more time to pursue a claim that has already expired. Courts in other states that have similar clauses to the Pennsylvania Constitution's Remedies Clause have held that the extension of time is not unconstitutional. Rozzi believes the bill is worth the risk.
See Bill would revive sex abuse victims' right to sue
On March 28, 2016, the House Republican Caucus announced that a resolution calling for an investigation into whether funds designated for highway safety are being unconstitutionally transferred to the Pennsylvania State Police has passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Sponsored by Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, House Resolution 622 requires the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to determine the "appropriate, justifiable, and Constitutional level" of money that the State Police may receive from the Motor License Fund. Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the fund is to be used for "construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety" of public highways and bridges only. Currently, money from the Motor License Fund accounts for two-thirds of the State Police's operating budget. Though the State Police help enforce highway safety with their patrols, the review will determine whether the State Police should receive the proposed $758 million in this year's budget.
See Taylor wants an investigation on the proper use of the Motor License Fund
On March 26, 2016, Josh J.T. Byrne of the Legal Intelligencer reported that two Chester County Court of Common Pleas judges have ruled that the Dragonetti Act is unconstitutional as applied to lawyers. Article V, Section 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution vests sole power to regulate the conduct of attorneys to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As such, the Dragonetti Act, a codification of the malicious prosecution and wrongful use of civil proceeding causes of action, infringes on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's power to police attorney conduct by allowing the now-plaintiff to sue the attorney if the attorney acted "in a grossly negligent manner or without probable cause and primarily for an improper purpose."
See Is the Dragonetti Act unconstitutional as applied to lawyers?
On March 25, 2016, Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported on a Chancellor's Forum hosted by the Philadelphia Bar Association in mid-March, where a sharp debate took place over the ballot question raising the mandatory retirement age for judges. State Representative Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, supports raising the retirement age because it would allow judges to use wisdom gained through life and legal experience and create diversity. State Senator Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, vehemently opposes the amendment, fearing that it would concentrate power into the hands of people with no immediate end to their tenure. Dr. Barry Rovner, neuropsychiatry specialist, spoke about the improvement of cognitive functions and empathy with age, and the director of judicial programs for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Joseph J. Mittleman, was featured as well.
See Judicial retirement age stirs debate at Philadelphia Bar forum
On March 25, 2016, Craig R. McCoy of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that five Pennsylvania news organizations set forth First Amendment arguments in support of their request that Montgomery County Court Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy deny Attorney General Kathleen Kane's request to file a central defense argument under seal. Kane and her legal team state that they fear filing publicly will violate a protective order by a Philadelphia judge that prohibits retaliation against witnesses in a case against six Philadelphia officials accused of stealing. Kane claims that her right to present a defense outweighs the public's right of access.
See Pa. news organizations contest Kane's request to file arguments in secret
On March 24, 2016, Wallace McKelvey of PennLive reported that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin was fined $50,000 by the Court of Judicial Discipline. Eakin, who resigned in early March amid a scandal over lewd emails, has no plans to appeal the decision. He has six months to pay the fine, which was "substantially and significantly" reduced because of Eakin's decision to resign and his "acceptance of responsibility." The Court of Judicial Discipline has not made any decisions regarding Eakin's pension.
See Pa. Supreme Court Justice Eakin ordered to pay fine, keeps pension over emails
On March 18, 2016, Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane has moved for an evidentiary hearing in her criminal case to determine whether her prosecutors leaked evidence to the press. Kane contends that one of her prosecutors gave information to a reporter about a series of telephone recordings between Kane's aide Josh Morrow and state Treasurer Rob McCord. Morrow and McCord's conversations center around McCords' potential assistance in passing along certain documents, which subsequently became the focus of Kane's criminal charges. The motion asserts, that if true, the prosecutor's actions constitute prosecutorial misconduct. Kane alleges that three parties had access to the information: the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and Kane/her counsel. Of the three, only the District Attorney's office would have had motive to release them. The hearing is set for March 22.
See Kane wants to know if DA leaked evidence
On March 17, 2016, Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported on how the "tense political climate" between the Republican-controlled Senate and Governor Tom Wolf will influence Wolf's choice for an interim justice to replace Justice J. Michael Eakin. Because of the drawn out negotiations that fueled the 9-month-long budget impasse, court observers believe the replacement justice will likely be a moderate Republican. Though interim justices are usually members of the same political party as their predecessors, it is unlikely that the Senate would clear a Democratic nominee. Wolf has created an 11-member judiciary advisory commission to vet those seeking the nominations and make recommendations. Aside from being a moderate Republican, court observers also state that an ideal candidate would be one that could begin immediately and has significant experience. The interim justice will also need to "demonstrate an ethical approach to the job," given the recent scandals that have plagued the bench.
See Harrisburg gridlock a factor in finding an interim justice
On March 17, 2016, John Baer of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the current disagreement over the wording of the upcoming ballot question to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman filed an "emergency application for extraordinary relief" with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for clarification. The purported confusion centers around references to Supreme Court justices. The suit alleges that the current wording of the ballot question ("Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court . . .") suggests the relevant justices are United States Supreme Court justices, not Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices. The GOP suggest that the ballot question reference all judges generally: ""Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices, judges and justices of the peace be retired . . ." Commentators argue that the GOP wants a simply worded ballot question to acquire easy "yes" votes and keep Chief Justice Thomas Saylor on the bench, as he is the only Republican and turns 70 in December.
See A Wolf vs. GOP wordplay scuffle
On March 16, 2016, State Representative David Parker, R-Monroe, announced House Bill 1835, legislation that would change the way Pennsylvania's district boundaries are drawn. The bill would require amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow a citizen commission to draw legislative and Congressional redistricting maps. The citizen commission removes political influence from the drawing of districts, leading to a "more open, transparent process" and "fair result." The bill would also employ factors considered in legislative redistricting to Congressional redistricting, such as population equality. Monroe County, where Parker is from, was split into six senate districts in 2001. This legislation is aimed at preventing districting like Monroe County was subject to in 2001.
See Parker introduces legislation to reform legislative redistricting process
On March 15, 2016, State Representatives John Taylor, R-Philadelphia and William Keller, D-Philadelphia, introduced legislation that would encourage job growth by reducing Philadelphia's wage and business privilege taxes. The bill, House Bill 1871, requires amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to exclude Philadelphia real estate from the scope of the Uniformity Clause, and allow real estate used for business purposes to be taxed at a different rate than other real estate. By reducing reliance on wage and business taxes in exchange for higher real estate tax, Taylor hopes to stimulate job growth.
See Taylor, Keller introduce legislation to reduce Philadelphia wage and income taxes
On March 15, 2016, Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported that the State Employees' Retirement System pays out almost $43 million to Pennsylvania's retired judges and justices in annual pension payouts. Edward R. Summers, a retired judge from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, receives the highest payout at a $189,844 annuity since his 2014 retirement. Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery receives a $133,903 annuity, a pension that he was allowed to keep after he resigned amid the allegations against him. More than $29 million goes to the pensions of the 383 former state judges, averaging at $76,000 each. The remaining $14 million goes to the 452 retired magisterial district judges. According to a fiscal note attached to the bill, the April 26 vote to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to raise the mandatory retirement age will likely have "no quantifiable impact on commonwealth funds."
See Pa. judiciary shares in $43M of state's annual pension bill
On March 15, 2016, Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported that Justice J. Michael Eakin announced his retirement from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, two weeks before his disciplinary trial on charges of ethics canons violations. The trial's purpose was to determine whether his actions constituted ethics violations and administer any discipline. Eakin had been suspended without pay, but his retirement does not guarantee his pension. His retirement comes a week after the Court of Judicial Disciple denied his request to present a proposed resolution to the court to forestall the need for trial if accepted.
See Eakin steps down with ethics trial looming
On March 7, 2016, Lizzy McLellan of The Legal Intelligencer reported that as many civil cases are mounting up against Attorney General Kathleen Kane, U.S. District Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner of the Middle District granted Kane's motion to stay the case while her criminal trial is pending. The alleged facts in her civil suits and the degree to which they intertwine with the criminal case were major influences in the court's decision. Kane also has civil cases pending in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
See State AG Kane's Criminal Case Begins to Hold Up Civil Suits
On March 4, 2016, Ben Seal and Lizzy McLellan of The Legal Intelligencer reported that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has filed a motion seeking a full-bench recusal in her criminal trial in Montgomery County. She argues that three of the judges have a "close connection" to her investigation and prosecution. Judge William Carpenter was supervising judge of the grand jury that recommended charges; Judge Carolyn Carluccio's husband, Thomas Carluccio, was the grand jury's special prosecutor, appointed by Carpenter; and Judge Risa Vetri Ferman, who was then the Montgomery County district attorney, reviewed the grand jury proceedings and made the decision to bring charges. Kane also argued that the testimony and evidence gathered by the investigating grand jury should be thrown out because the proceedings were "unlawful and unconstitutional."
See Kane Seeks Full-Bench Recusal, Fights Charges
On March 4, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that an undisclosed relationship between one of the three judges overseeing the ethics trial of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Eakin and former Justice McCaffery should have been disclosed. McCaffery's campaign made donations totaling more than $14,000 to Court of Judicial Discipline Judge Carmella Mullen. It was alleged that McCaffery had threatened to release information linking Eakin to the scandal unless Eakin pressured then-Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to retract statements he had made about McCaffery. Eakin's attorney feels that the relationship between Mullen and McCaffery violates the Code of Judicial Conduct and that Mullen should recuse herself.
See Judge's Relationship Raises Recusal Question in Eakin Case
On March 2, 2016, Brad Bumsted of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported on the current attitudes of the legislature toward Governor Tom Wolf and his role in the budget impasse. In particular, Senate Republicans are displeased that Wolf is spending money that he cut from a proposed budget through his line item veto power. Wolf's detractors believe that his spending of money not appropriated by the legislature violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. Wolf's current efforts include passing a 2016-2017 budget to address a $2 billion deficit by instituting a tax increase.
See Pennsylvania governor Wolf's spending amid budget impasse baffles lawmakers
On March 1, 2016, John T. Vogel of Tucker Arensberg commented on the recent decision by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court that a school district can appeal tax assessments of certain high-valued properties without violating the Uniformity Clause. When the Upper Merion Area School District filed its annual assessment appeals and only challenged the assessments of apartment buildings, the owners of those buildings alleged that their commercial properties were targeted while residential properties were not. The Court held that when a school district has "reasonable and financial considerations of increasing its revenue," its decision to appeal only certain commercial or high-valued properties does not violate the Uniformity Clause because it is not arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory.
See Pennsylvania Court Confirms That School Districts May Target High Value Properties When Appealing Tax Assessments For The Purpose Of Increasing Revenue Without Violating The Uniformity Clause Of The Pennsylvania Constitution
On February 26, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that many ethics attorneys were surprised by the Court of Judicial Discipline's decision to deny all parties in the disciplinary case against Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Eakin to present proposed resolutions. In early February the court appointed attorney Richard Sprague to mediate the case upon request from the parties, but this move will put the case back on track for trial beginning March 29, 2016.
See CJD's Reversal on Eakin Deal an 'Odd' Move, Attorneys Say
On February 25, 2016, Matthew Santoni of the Tribune Review reported that Corry Sanders, who won a seat on the McKeesport City Council, cannot take his seat because of two 23-year-old drug convictions. The Pennsylvania Constitution bars anyone who was convicted of a felony from holding public office. Though Sanders applied for a pardon, the process was not completed by the time he won the general election. In response to a motion by the district attorney's office seeking to prevent Sanders from taking office, Judge Joseph James ruled that his victory was enough to violate the state constitution.
See Election winner loses bid to take seat
On February 20, 2016, Senator Art Haywood (D., Montgomery), wrote a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer explaining why he voted against removing Kathleen Kane from her position as the State Attorney General. Haywood emphasized that, as an attorney and member of the bar of the Supreme Court, Kane does, in fact, meet the Pennsylvania Constitution's requirements to serve. He wrote that removing her solely because her law license is temporarily suspended "would fly in the face of the facts before the committee." Further, Haywood noted that 90% the attorney general's duties do not require a law license because they do not involve the practice of law. These circumstances, including the fact that Pennsylvania courts are continuing to rule that the Office of the Attorney General has the authority to prosecute criminals, compelled Haywood to vote against removing Kane.
See Senate had no power to remove attorney general
On February 16, 2016, Karen Langley of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane will not seek reelection. Kane, who is still facing possible impeachment proceedings and a criminal trial this summer, cited responsibilities to her family as the reason for not running.
See Embattled Attorney General Kane says she won't seek a second term
On February 13, 2016, John Nivala, a professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School, wrote a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer commenting on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's contention that a law which designates church property as "historic" without its consent unconstitutionally infringes on its right to free exercise of religion. While other states have exempted churches from such historical designations under the Free Exercise Clause, in Pennsylvania this issue incorporates Article I Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the right to worship freely is still subject to the state's police power, and Philadelphia's ordinance is reasonable. To overcome this, the church would have to show that the historic designation impedes it from carrying out its purpose.
See In Pa., church property subject to historic designation
On February 10, 2016, Wallace McKelvey of PennLive recounts the current state of affairs in the Kathleen Kane "circus." The two-thirds vote from the Senate needed to invoke the "direct address" clause under the Pennsylvania Constitutions were not met, meaning the issue will not reach Governor Wolf to carry out the removal. The purpose of the hearing was to consider whether Kane was able to perform her job without a law license. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati emphasized the silence of Governor Tom Wolf as crucial in the Democrats' vote against removal, noting that if he had spoken up, more Democrats might have voted to remove Kane. The House may continue with the impeachment process in the wake of the Senate's failed attempt at removal.
See ‘This circus continues': AG Kathleen Kane survives, and possible thrives, after failed ouster
On February 10, 2015, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Senate voted 29-19 in favor of removing Attorney General Kathleen Kane, but did not receive the required two-thirds majority vote required to send the matter to Governor Wolf for action. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 170-12 to adopt a resolution that will launce an investigation as to whether articles of impeachment should be brought against Kane.
See AG Kane Survives Senate Vote
On February 9, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that lawyers for the Judicial Conduct Board revealed documents that indicated Attorney General Kathleen Kane failed to comply to a subpoena from the JCB requesting all of Justice Eakin's offensive emails she had in her possession. Kane's office acknowledged receiving the subpoena in December of 2015. Spokesman for the OAG stated that they are "trying to learn who signed for the subpoena so that [they could] follow the dots and figure out if the ball was dropped and, if so, by whom."
See Kane Ignored Court Subpoena in Eakin Case
On February 8, 2016, the PR Newswire (Harrsiburg, PA) reported that the President of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association supported and urged the House Transportation Committee to request a study to determine the appropriate level of funding for State Police operations with revenue from the state's Motor License Fund. Van Buren, president of the association, noted that the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that revenue from the fund can only be used for highway purposes, and that the amounts being diverted to the State Police are greater than the amount needed to patrol the highways.
See PA Highway Info president supports State Police funding study
On February 8, 2016, it was reported that Senator Ryan Aument (R-Landsville) participated in a joint public hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee regarding the expenditure of funds during the recent budget impasse. Aument argued that Governor Wolf and the state treasury has been spending money during the impasse in violation of Article III, Section 24 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The section states that "[n]o money shall be paid out of the treasury, except on appropriations made by law and on warrant issued by the proper officer."
See Aument: Serious Constitutional Questions Raised in Senate Hearing
On February 7, 2016, Mark Fazlollah of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Court of Judicial Discipline confirmed that it appointed Philadelphia Attorney Richard A. Sprague to serve as a mediator in the case against Justice Eakin. Attorney General Kathleen Kane stated that the move is an attempt for private lawyers to strike a "side deal" with Justice Eakin and has since called the move a step to "sweep his hate-filled emails under the rug."
See AG Kane slams appointment of mediator in Porngate case
On February 5, 2016, Lizzy McLellan and Ben Seal of the Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Attorney General Kathleen Kane's petition for reinstatement of her law license. Kane's petition alleged that Eakin should not have participated in the court's suspension of her law license because she publicized offensive emails that have contributed to his own suspension from the bench, making his involvement a "knowing and deliberate attempt to remove his accuser." She alleged violations of the Model Code of Judicial Conduct and her due process rights. The court's order denying her petition allows the Pennsylvania Senate to vote on her removal from office under Article VI, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. A two-thirds vote would send the matter to Governor Wolf. Kane continues to deny any wrongdoing.
See Kane's Law License Reinstatement Petition Denied
On February 4, 2016, David Pierce of the Pocono Record reported that a Monroe County Judge ruled that the court had no authority to remove four Pocono Township commissioners from office for failure to perform their duties. The Pennsylvania General Assembly approved an amendment to the first-class township code in the fall of 2015 that deleted "failure to perform duties" as ground for taking away a commissioner's office. The only constitutional way to remove a township official is through state impeachment, action by the governor and senate, or action by a prosecutor.
See Judge says court has no authority to oust Pocono Twp. Commissioners
On January 27, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Senate Committee that is investigating Attorney General Kathleen Kane's conduct has recommended that the full chamber hold off on their vote on whether to remove Kane until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules on her petition to reinstate her law license.
See Committee: Allow High Court Review Before Vote on Kane
On January 26, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is moving towards impeaching Attorney General. On Tuesday, January 26, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a resolution to authorize the committee to investigate Attorney General Kathleen Kane's conduct while in office.
See Pa. House Takes Step Toward Impeaching Kane
On January 22, 2016, Ben Seal of The Legal Intelligencer reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will rehear arguments on 26 cases that were argued before the Justices in 2015 but were left undecided at the end of the year. The interim suspension of Justice Eakin and the end of Justice Stevens' term on the bench leaves the current Court with only three voting members for those 26 remaining cases.
See Supreme Court Orders Reargument in 26 Cases From 2015
On January 22, 2016, Charles Thompson of PennLive, reported that the Office of the Attorney General was reviewing the recent Superior Court of Pennsylvania decision quashing some of the charges against three former Penn State administrators. Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz, and Tim Curley were charged with lying to state investigators about their knowledge of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. The three men alleged that they believed Cynthia Baldwin was their counsel at the beginning of the investigation, so when she testified against them, she broke attorney-client privilege. The Office of Attorney General could file for a reconsideration by the court or appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Regardless, the office can still proceed with the child endangerment and failure to report suspected child abuse counts.
See Pa. Attorney General's office has Superior Court's Sandusky cover-up decision "under review"
On January 21, 2016, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Pedro Gomez, caused to be published a public notice stating two proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution as required by Article XI, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The first proposed amendment, Joint Resolution 2015-1, would amend Article V, Section 16(b) and change the retirement age of judges in Pennsylvania to 75. The second proposed amendment, Joint Resolution 2015-2, would amend Article V, Section 1 to abolish the Philadelphia traffic court. These amendments will be submitted to the electors in the form of questions at the General Primary to be held on April 26, 2016. Each proposed amendment needs a majority vote to become part of the constitution.
See Public Notice 2016
On January 15, 2016, Jim Spezialetti of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that Bridgeville Councilman Jason Sarasnick was barred from holding public office because of a past criminal conviction under Article II, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. notified Bridgeville Councilman Jason Sarasnick that he had 7 to 10 days to resign from his position. In 1992, Sarasnick pled guilty to a felony charge of manufacturing, delivering or possessing with intent to deliver a controlled substance and a misdemeanor charge of intent to possess a controlled substance. A tip prompted the district attorney's office to look into Sarasnick's record. Corey Sanders was also notified by the district attorney's office that he cannot take the McKeesport council seat due to a 23-year-old drug conviction under the same provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
See Decades-old drug plea makes Bridgeville councilman ineligible for office
On January 13, 2016, Karen Langley of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane's chief of staff, Jonathon Duecker, testified at the Senate hearing on January 12 that was part of the process to potentially remove Kane from office. Former Governor Ed Rendell also testified at the hearing, not to support Ms. Kane, but to advise the Senate to pursue the removal through the impeachment process.
See Senators have sharp words for Kane aide at hearing
On January 11, 2016, Brad Bumsted of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed an emergency petition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to have her law license reinstated. Kane argued that Justice Eakin voted in favor of the license suspension but knew that she had access to his racy and offensive emails. The vote to suspend Kane's license was five to zero.
See Kane asks Supreme Court to reinstate law license, citing Justice Eakin's vote
On January 6, 2016, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives issued a memorandum announcing Representative Will Tillman's intention to introduce legislation, former HB 469, to counter President Obama's Executive Order on gun control. Representative Tillman's legislation "will be a strong assertion of state rights, and firearm owner rights" and seeks to protect Pennsylvanians' right under Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The law will make it illegal to enforce the Executive Order's provisions in Pennsylvania.
See Tallman legislation would block Obama executive order on firearms