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Pennsylvania Constitution in the News – 2009

Writers for both the Post-Gazette (Brian O’Neill, 12/13/2009) and Tribune Review (Brad Bumstead, 12/20/2009) have recently written an op-ed piece and a story, respectively, urging the convening of a constitutional convention in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Temple University Beasley School of Law Student Bar Association announced a debate by the two major party candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Republican Joan Orie Melvin and Democrat Jack Panella on Thursday, October 22 at Temple University in Philadelphia from 12:15-1:15 pm. Televised Coverage was provided by PCN-TV.

The Tribune Review reported on August 3, 2009, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court took jurisdiction, presumably under the Court’s King’s Bench power, in the Janssen Pharmaceuticals’ challenge to the State contingency fee contract granted by the Governor Rendell Administration to a law firm to bring suit in the name of the State over allegations against the drug company of improper marketing.

On July 25, 2009, Brad Bumstead reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on an aspect of the State budget impasse involving a 2008 Commonwealth Court opinion interpreting Article III, Section 24 of the State Constitution, which provides that “[n]o money shall be paid out of the treasury, except on appropriations mad by law… .” The Commonwealth Court had held that there were no exceptions to the appropriation rule. The question was whether the State could pay State employees, as arguably required by federal labor law, despite the absence of a State budget. The article pointed out that there was no actual conflict between federal labor law and the State Constitution since State employees could simply not be employed until the budget impasse was resolved. Of course, that course would result in tremendous disruptions in the State.  See Commentary.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled on Tuesday, July 21, 2009 that gun owners and the NRA lacked standing to challenge a Pittsburgh ordinance requiring owners to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours. Plaintiffs said that they will appeal and, in any event, anyone charged under the ordinance will have standing to challenge it.

John G. McCurdy told the story in the New York Times of how the first Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention granted the right to vote to all who males who paid taxes, thus removing the taxation without representation of single men who were subject to Pennsylvania’s special tax on the unmarried who earned wages but owned no property: We the Bachelors, 2009 WLNR 12759976 (July 4, 2009).  Of course, women who paid taxes were still excluded from the vote.

On July 9, 2009, Rich Lord reported in the Post-Gazette that Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. opened a July 8 hearing challenging Pittsburgh’s stolen gun ordinance by asking whether a Commonwealth Court standing decision (see NRA v. City of Philadelphia) “knocks out the NRA’s lawsuit”.  2009 WLNR 13051672.

State Senator John Eichelberger has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage in Pennsylvania as being between one man and one woman.  Passage of the amendment in the General Assembly requires affirmative action in two successive sessions.  If successful, the proposed amendment is then placed on the ballot for majority action by the electorate.  Proponents estimate that the amendment could not be on the ballot before 2011.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was busy at the end of April, issuing two important State constitutional opinions.  In the first, Clifton v. Allegheny County, 969 A.2d 1197 (Pa. 2009), the Court, in a majority opinion by Castille, C.J., found the current base year property assessment system in Allegheny County unconstitutional as a violation of the tax uniformity clause (Article VIII, Section 1).  In the second, DePaul v. Gaming Control Board, 969 A.2d 536 (Pa. 4/2009), the Court, per Castille, C.J., found the ban on political contributions in the gambling statue to be a violation of the freedom of expression provision of the State constitution (Article I, Section 7).  In Belden & Blake v. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 969 A.2d 528 (Pa. 2009), the Court, per Eakin, J., also rejected an argument by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that it could condition the rights of subsurface landholders pursuant to Article I, Section 27.

The Scranton Times Tribune published an editorial criticizing a lawsuit filed by Luzerne County President Judge Mark A. Ciavarella for a arit of mandamus requiring Luzerne County to fund the Court of Common Pleas at a higher level than the County Commissioners have approved.  Court Still Part of Government, 2009 WLNR 441780 (1/9/2009).