Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged for the third time, the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In previous trips before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, PEDF challenged several 2009-2025 budgetary provisions enacted challenging the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In the first two cases, PEDF challenged several 2009-2015 budgetary provisions enacted in the wake of dramatic increases in oil and gas revenue resulting from Marcellus Shale exploration in Pennsylvania. Applying trust principles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the budgetary provisions violated Section 27 by utilizing the oil and gas revenue for non-trust purposes via transfers to the General Fund. PEDF v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017) (“PEDF II”); PEDF v. Commonwealth, 255 A.3d 289 (Pa. 2021) (“PEDF V”). The underlying case here was one for a declaratory judgment, and named the Commonwealth and Governor as parties. Here, PEDF raised numerous constitutional challenges to provisions of the General Appropriations Act of 2017 and 2018, as well as the 2017 Fiscal Code amendments, all of which were enacted after the Supreme Court’s decision in PEDF II. After review , the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court, whilst rejecting that court;s analysis derived from PEDF III. View "PA Enviro Defense Fdn, Aplt. v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a question of whether the General Assembly overstepped its constitutional authority by enacting legislation that allowed for universal mail-in voting. Among other things, "Act 77" effected major amendments to the Pennsylvania Election Code, including universal, state-wide mail-in voting. On November 21, 2020, eight petitioners – including a Republican congressman and Republican candidates for the United States House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – filed a petition for review with the Commonwealth Court seeking to halt the certification of the 2020 General Election, and including a facial challenge to the portions of Act 77 that established universal mail-in voting. The Supreme Court exercised extraordinary jurisdiction over the matter, and found a “complete failure to act with due diligence in commencing [the] facial constitutional challenge, which was ascertainable upon Act 77’s enactment[,]” as the petitioners waited until the ballots from the General Election were in the process of being tallied, and the results were becoming apparent, to raise their claim. Thus, the Court found the claim barred by the doctrine of laches. The Court found no restriction in the Pennsylvania Constitution on the General Assembly's ability to create universal mail-in voting. View "McLinko v. Penna. Dept. of State, et al." on Justia Law

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On July 5, 2014, at around 4:42 p.m., Appellee Akim Jones-Williams drove his car at approximately two miles per hour across train tracks. An approaching train collided with the car and pushed it nearly one-quarter mile before it stopped. Upon arriving at the scene, emergency personnel found Appellee outside the vehicle. Appellee’s fiance, Cori Sisti, and their daughter, S.J., were still inside the car. Medics declared Sisti dead at the scene, but transported Appellee and S.J. to York Hospital for medical treatment. Several individuals told the investigating lieutenant that they smelled burnt marijuana coming from Appellee and the car. Therefore, at approximately 6:00 p.m., the lieutenant asked a sergeant to interview Appellee at the hospital and obtain a “legal blood draw.” When the sergeant arrived at the hospital, Appellee was restrained in a hospital bed fading in and out of consciousness and unable to respond to basic questions. As such, the sergeant could not communicate to Appellee the consent of the form. Nevertheless, the sergeant later learned that hospital personnel drew Appellee’s blood at 5:56 p.m. The record did not establish why that blood was drawn, but it is clear that it was drawn prior to the sergeant's arrival. The sergeant completed paperwork requesting the hospital's lab to transfer Appellee's blood sample to a police lab for testing for controlled substances or alcohol. The resulting toxicology report revealed that Appellee’s blood contained Delta-9 THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Appellee was arrested in April 2015, and ultimately convicted of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence; homicide by vehicle; endangering the welfare of a child (“EWOC”); recklessly endangering another person (“REAP”); and related charges. Appellee filed an omnibus pre-trial motion, in which he moved to suppress the blood test results. He argued that police lacked probable cause that he was driving under the influence, that his blood was seized without a warrant and without satisfying the exigency exception, and that 75 Pa.C.S. § 3755 did not justify the seizure in the absence of exigent circumstances. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the superior court that evidence from the blood sample should have been suppressed at trial. The matter was remanded for a new trial. View "Pennsylvania v. Jones-Williams" on Justia Law

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This matter began with a challenge to the nomination petition of Robert Jordan, a candidate for the Republican Party’s nomination for the office of State Representative of the 165th Legislative District. Objector Fred Runge sought to remove Jordan from the ballot for the May 17, 2022 primary election on the ground that Jordan had moved into the district less than a year before the November 8 general election and therefore could not satisfy the residency requirements set forth in Article II, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Commonwealth Court found Objector’s claim non-justiciable and dismissed his challenge for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Given the need to resolve the appeal expeditiously to provide notice to the parties and election administrators, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision in a per curiam Order dated April 19, 2022. The Court also directed the Secretary of the Commonwealth to remove Jordan's name from the ballot, finding that by a preponderance of the evidence, Jordan had not lived in the 165th Legislative District for at least one year preceding the general election. The Court published this opinion to explain its ruling. View "In Re: Nom. Robert Jordan" on Justia Law

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Appellee Ryan Pownall, a former Philadelphia Police Officer was charged with killing David Jones by gunfire while on duty in his capacity as a police officer. Anticipating Pownall might pursue at trial a peace officer justification defense under 18 Pa.C.S. §508, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (“DAO”), on behalf of the Commonwealth, filed a pretrial motion in limine seeking to preclude the trial court from using Suggested Standard Jury Instruction (Crim) §9.508B, which largely tracked Section 508. The DAO argued that since the justification statute supposedly violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), so too must the standard jury instruction based on the statute. The trial court disagreed, concluding the DAO’s pretrial motion, by itself, was “insufficient to establish the unconstitutionality of Section 508[.]” Moreover, the court believed the DAO’s suggested remedy — proposing that it rewrite several disjunctive “ors” within the statute to conjunctive “ands” — was an “inappropriate” request for it to “judicially usurp the legislative function of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and rewrite Section 508 out of whole cloth.” For those reasons it denied the DAO’s request to certify the case for interlocutory appeal. When the DAO appealed anyway, the superior court quashed, reasoning the trial court’s order was not collateral and did not substantially handicap or terminate the DAO’s prosecution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the superior court erred in quashing the appeal. Because the Supreme Court concluded it did not, the judgment was affirmed. View "Pennsylvania v. Pownall" on Justia Law

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Appellant Mark Prinkey caimed his sentence resulted from a prosecutor’s unconstitutionally vindictive decision to pursue a mandatory minimum term of years. Proceeding from the general principle that a sentence was unlawful if the sentencing court lacks the legal authority to impose that sanction, Pennyslvania law recognized four broad types of legality challenges. The issue this appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review was whether a particular type of claim constituted a challenge to the legality of the sentence, such that it was cognizable under the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA): (1) a claim that a sentence was imposed pursuant to a facially unconstitutional sentencing statute; (2) an assertion that statutory preconditions to the court’s sentencing authority were not present; (3) a challenge alleging a violation or nonfulfillment of a substantive, constitutional restriction upon the court’s authority to impose the sentence; and (4) an argument that the statutory support for the conviction is void ab initio. In this case, the Court held that a challenge to a sentence as presumptively vindictive fell within the third category of legality challenges and, thus, was cognizable under the PCRA. View "Pennsylvania v. Prinkey" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on a challenge to the lifetime registration requirement of the Revised Subchapter H of Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”), and whether that requirement was waived because Appellant Shaune Thorne, Sr. did not raise such challenges at the time of his sentencing or in a post-sentence motion but, instead, raised them for the first time in his brief to the Superior Court. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded Appellant did not waive his Apprendi-based and cruel and unusual punishment challenges to the lifetime registration requirement set forth in Revised Subchapter H by raising them for the first time in his brief to the Superior Court, because such claims implicated the legality of a sentence and, therefore, could not be waived. Further, for purposes of clarification, the Court expressly disapproved Commonwealth v. Reslink, 257 A.3d 21 (Pa. Super. 2020) to the extent that it unnecessarily limited a sexual offender’s ability to raise constitutional challenges to Revised Subchapter H by requiring that those challenges be raised before the trial court. View "Pennsylvania v. Thorne" on Justia Law

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In 2013, while in the Navy, Appellee A.L. had intercourse with the adult victim when her ability to consent was impaired by alcohol. He was charged with sexual assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Appellee was tried by general court-martial, with a panel of service members acting as fact-finders. The panel returned a verdict of guilty. Appellee was sentenced to sixty days’ confinement, a reduction in rank, and a dishonorable discharge. He appealed to the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the conviction and sentence. After his discharge from the Navy, Appellee moved to Pennsylvania. He registered with the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) as a sex offender subject to registration under Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). The PSP determined Appellee’s crime triggered a Tier III registration obligation. Appellee appealed that designation, arguing PSP’s action was adjudicative and not merely ministerial. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal in this matter to determine whether sexual assault as defined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice was comparable to sexual assault as defined under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code so as to make Appellee a lifetime SORNA registrant. The Supreme Court concluded the military statute under which Appellee was convicted effectively defined two crimes, and PSP lacked a valid foundation to discern which of the two formed the basis for the military panel’s finding of guilt. Therefore, Appellee’s court-martial conviction could not be the basis for his classification as a Tier III registrant. View "A. L. v. PA State Police" on Justia Law

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On November 17, 2017, Patrolman Brian Shaw of the City of New Kensington Police Department was shot and killed in the line of duty. At 8:06 p.m. Officer Shaw informed dispatch that a vehicle had failed to stop for his lights and sirens. Shortly afterwards, Officer Shaw announced that he was pursuing on foot. Moments later he radioed that he had been shot. Because no one witnessed the shooting, the Commonwealth established appellant Rahmel Sal Holt’s guilt through circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of Tavon Harper, the driver of the vehicle Officer Shaw attempted to stop. Holt would ultimately be convicted, for which he was sentenced to death. Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was automatic. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Holt" on Justia Law

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Appellant Michael Parrish appealed after the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County dismissed his petition for post-conviction relief filed pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). To the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Parrish raised numerous claims of error, including a layered ineffectiveness claim in connection with the failure of trial counsel to file a notice of appeal after his conviction and death sentence. The first layer of his claim was the contention that trial counsel were ineffective for not consulting with him regarding his appellate rights before failing to file a notice of appeal, and in so doing, violated a constitutional duty established in Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470 (2000). The second layer of the claim was Parrish’s assertion that his initial PCRA counsel’s stewardship of the failure to consult claim before the PCRA court was deficient, in that initial PCRA counsel failed to present any evidence or legal argument to substantiate the failure to consult claim. In his brief to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Parrish identified the evidence and legal theory that his initial PCRA counsel should have presented to the PCRA court. Parrish raised the second layer of his claim for the first time to the Supreme Court in this appeal, and the Supreme Court concluded he was permitted to do so without a finding of waiver based upon a recent decision in Commonwealth v. Bradley, 261 A.3d 381 (Pa. 2021). Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded this case for the introduction of evidence and legal argument so that the PCRA court could issue a decision on the merits of Parrish’s layered failure to consult claim. View "Pennsylvania v. Parrish" on Justia Law