Ryan Hutchins, Several State Legislators Want Constitutional Right to Clear Air, Water, Politico (December 30, 2017). Ryan Hutchins for Politico reported that Assemblyman Tim Eustace and two other Democratic colleagues in New Jersey are proposing an amendment to Article I of its state constitution which plans to make the State a trustee of public natural resources among other guarantees of environmental rights. This proposed amendment is based in part on Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
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.