Home » Pennsylvania Constitution in the News – 2011

Pennsylvania Constitution in the News – 2011

On Wednesday, October 26, 2011, the Pennsylvania Senate narrowly passed Senate Bill 1, the taxpayer-funded private school vouchers bill. Opponents of the bill claim that it violates at least four provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution; for example, Article III’s prohibition of the use of public funds for the support of religious schools. Senator Anthony Williams, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, defended the bill on the ground that it is up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the voucher program, not the legislature.

A number of recent news stories have appeared concerning calls for the resignation of Justice Joan Orie-Melvin, including a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review by Bobby Kerlik and Brad Bumsted that broke the news on Tuesday, January 10, 2012, that Justice Joan Orie Melvin received a target letter and subpoena from an Allegheny County grand jury–Joan Orie Melvin a Target of Grand Jury–and a story in the Post Gazette by Paula Reed Ward on Wednesday, January 11, 2012 that included a quote from Chief Justice Castille that “a four-member majority of the court could decide to suspend any justice, even without charges being filed.” Pa Justice Staying on Bench Amid Probe. Justice Joan Orie Melvin staying on state Supreme Court amid probe

On October 18, 2011, the state Court of Judicial Discipline removed Merlo, a Lehigh County magisterial district judge, from the bench after its finding in August that she violated the Pennsylvania Constitution and the standard of conduct for MDJs by telling her staff that she would not be coming to court 116 days over a two-year period and, when she did come to court, habitually arriving tardily. Removal from office, a sanction handed down to Pennsylvania district judges only five other times in the last decade, is the most severe available in the Court of Judicial Discipline. Allentown’s Judge Merlo removed from bench.

On September 14, 2011, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission held a public hearing at Duquesne University School of Law, which allowed citizens to voice their opinions on the redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative district lines.
State legislators say the redistricting process is going, but at a dismaying and troubling rate. While some believe the redistricting process is “still being perfected,” others say a preliminary plan may already be drafted and the proposed redistricted maps readily available – just beyond closed doors. “Crazy eights”, Josh Barr, Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal, 2011 WLNR 20947793 (9/1/2011).

On August 30, 2011, William Costopoulos, the attorney for state Senator Jane Orie, stated that there is nothing new to the additional criminal charges filed against her by Allegheny County prosecutors, contending the move is a “vindictive maneuver” meant to influence the her pending Superior Court appeal aimed at preventing a retrial on public corruption charges. Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, said if the defense submitted fraudulent documents as evidence, the courts will likely allow another trial. See Appeals may delay trial in Orie Case.

On Monday, August 15, 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that -for the first time in history- it will allow television cameras to record oral arguments for later broadcast. Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, State Supreme Court coming to TV.

On July 8, 2011, Governor Tom Corbett vetoed a measure that would have imposed a temporary moratorium on court-ordered countywide reassessments in Washington County. As the bill only applied to Washington County, the Governor stated that it was unconstitutional special legislation and a violation of the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. House Bill 1696.

On June 24, 2011, Sari Heidenreich, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, stated in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Governor Tom Corbett wants lawmakers to approve legislation providing school vouchers by June 30, 2011. Opponents of the legislation claim that vouchers for school choice violate Article III, Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which provides that “no money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” It should be noted that this last-minute push failed. [According to Senate Education Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, a leading advocate for school vouchers, the issue will have to be taken up again in the fall, after the recess.]

On June 23, 2011, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in a per curiam order, ruled that the Pennsylvania Superior Court should reconsider whether the double jeopardy claim made by Senator Jane Orie, whose first trial on public corruption charges ended in a mistrial, was frivolous in her attempt to avoid a second trial over her alleged work on state time. The retrial is scheduled for October.

On May 31, 2011, the trial for Allentown District Judge Maryesther Merlo commenced; in addition to allegations of frequent lateness and absenteeism, the state agency in charge of investigating complaints against judges accused Merlo of being rude to lawyers and defendants and making bizarre requirements of defendants who appeared before her. See Trial Begins for Allentown Judge Maryesther Merlo.

In light of the recent decision upholding against federal pre-emption challenges, the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which allowed the state to revoke business licenses of local companies who “intentionally and knowingly employed illegal immigrants, on June 6, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a decision last year that struck down a similar set of ordinances regulating immigration in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. See Review of Hazleton immigrant law ordered.

Article 1, Section 21 guarantees that the “right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.” On March 7, 2011, House Bill 40 was passed, which expanded the “Castle Doctrine” to public places, allowing the right to use a gun or other deadly force in self-defense in situations outside a person’s home or business. Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.

On March 10, 2011, Richard Komer, senior litigation attorney for the Institute for Justice wrote an op-ed piece for the Centre Daily Times discussing the constitutionality of school vouchers under the federal constitution and Article III, Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. See Vouchers Allowable under Constitution.

On January 18, 2011, Leo Strupczewski wrote a story concerning the challenge by suspended Allentown Magistrate Maryesther Merlo to the authority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to issue such a suspension. See High Court’s Authority to Suspend Judges under Fire.

On January 7, 2011, Brad Bumstead reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that on the eve of leaving office, Governor Ed Rendell said his “one regret” is having signed the 2005 pay raise legislation. See Rendell regrets OK of ’05 pay raise.