Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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The Natural Gas Act (NGA), 15 U.S.C. 717, allows private gas companies to exercise the federal government’s power to take property by eminent domain, if the company has a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); was unable to acquire the property by contract or reach agreement about the amount to be paid; and the value of the property exceeds $3,000. PennEast, scheduled to build a pipeline through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, obtained federal approval for the project and filed suit under the NGA to condemn and gain immediate access to properties along the pipeline route, including 42 properties owned, at least in part, by New Jersey or arms of the state. New Jersey sought dismissal, citing the Eleventh Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of PennEast. The Third Circuit vacated. The Eleventh Amendment recognizes that states enjoy sovereign immunity from suits by private parties in federal court. New Jersey has not consented to PennEast’s condemnation suits and its sovereign immunity has not been abrogated by the NGA. The federal government’s power of eminent domain and its power to hale sovereign states into federal court are separate and distinct. In the NGA, Congress has delegated only the power of eminent domain. View "In re: PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC" on Justia Law

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Under the now-repealed 8 U.S.C. 1432(a)(2), a “child” born outside of the U.S. to noncitizen parents became a citizen upon the naturalization of her surviving parent if one of her parents was deceased. Section 1101(c)(1) defined “child” as including a child born out of wedlock only if the child was legitimated under the “law of the child’s residence or domicile” or “the law of the father’s residence or domicile . . . except as otherwise provided in” section 1432, which exempted mothers of born-out-of-wedlock children from the legitimation requirement. That affirmative steps to verify paternity, including legitimation, may be taken if a citizen-parent is an unwed father has withstood constitutional scrutiny, on the basis that the relation between a mother and a child “is verifiable from the birth.” Tineo was born in the Dominican Republic to noncitizen parents who never married. His father moved to the U.S. and naturalized. His noncitizen mother died. At the time, under the laws of either the Dominican Republic or New York, legitimation could only occur if his birth parents married. Tineo’s father was forever precluded from having his son derive citizenship through him, despite being a citizen and having cared for his son. Threatened with removal, Tineo brought a Fifth Amendment challenge on behalf of his now-deceased father. The Third Circuit held that, in this circumstance, the interplay of the statutory sections are inconsistent with the equal-protection mandate of the Due Process Clause. View "Tineo v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Velazquez and his girlfriend had a physical altercation. He threatened her at his preliminary hearing and, from prison, sent threatening letters. Velazquez refused to enter his detention cell; the guard sustained scratches during the struggle. Velazquez was charged with burglary, intimidating a witness, terroristic threats, harassment, and aggravated assault. Due to Velazquez’s history of mental illness, his attorney advised him to enter a guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) plea under Pennsylvania law, waiving the right to a jury trial. If that plea is accepted, the defendant may receive mental health treatment while serving her sentence. A judge may not accept a GBMI plea unless she examines certain reports, holds a hearing, and determines that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. If the judge does not accept the GBMI plea, the right to a jury trial is returned. Velazquez’s GBMI plea was not accepted. The judge did not examine reports nor hold a hearing and did not determine whether Velazquez was mentally ill. Velazquez’s right to trial was not reinstated. The judge recorded that Velazquez had entered a normal guilty plea. Counsel did not object. The Third Circuit granted relief on Velazquez’s habeas petition, finding ineffective assistance of counseI. The district court had habeas jurisdiction although the petitioner merely asserted that the wrong guilty plea was entered. The requisite prejudice can be shown although the appropriate plea would not have resulted in a reduced sentence. View "Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives begins most legislative sessions with a prayer. Plaintiffs challenged two practices: the House invites guest chaplains to offer the prayer, but it excludes nontheists (those who do not espouse belief in a god or gods, though not necessarily atheists) from serving as chaplains on the theory that “prayer” presupposes a higher power and visitors to the House chamber pass a sign asking them to stand for the prayer, and the Speaker of the House requests that audience members “please rise” immediately before the prayer. At least once a House security guard pressured visitors who refused to stand. The Third Circuit upheld the practices as to the Establishment Clause because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power. Legislative prayer is government speech and not open to challenges under the Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection Clauses. With respect to the statement “please rise” for the prayer, the court held that the single incident involving pressure from a security guard is moot. The sign outside the House chamber and the Speaker’s introductory request that guests “please rise” are not coercive. View "Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives" on Justia Law

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Englewood amended its ordinances to address aggressive antiabortion protests that had been regularly occurring outside of a health clinic that provided reproductive health services, including abortions. Some of the “militant activists and aggressive protestors” support violent reprisal against abortion providers. The ordinance restricted the use of public ways and sidewalks adjacent to healthcare facilities during business hours to persons entering or leaving such facility; the facility's employees and agents; law enforcement, ambulance, firefighting, construction, utilities, public works and other municipal agents within the scope of their employment; and persons using the public way solely to reach another destination. The ordinance created overlapping buffer zones at qualifying facilities. Turco, a non-aggressive “sidewalk counselor,” filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violations of her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and association. The district court concluded that the statute was overbroad and not narrowly tailored to serve the government’s interest. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that genuine issues of material fact preclude the entry of summary judgment to either side. The buffer zones’ exact impact on the sidewalk counselors’ speech and the concomitant efficacy of their attempts to communicate is unclear. Turco admitted that she continued to speak with patients entering the clinic. The city considered and attempted to implement alternatives before creating the buffer zone. View "Turco v. City of Englewood" on Justia Law

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The five Petitioners were convicted, among other offenses, of violating 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A), which proscribes the use or carry of a firearm during and in relation to a “crime of violence” or “drug trafficking crime,” as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of any such crime. Section 924(c)(3) defines “crime of violence” to mean a felony offense that “(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another” (elements clause) or “(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense” (residual clause). Each petitioner filed a second or successive habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255(h)(2) to challenge their sentences section 924(c), arguing that 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, given its textual similarity to the residual clauses found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, (2015), and Sessions v. Dimaya (2018). The Supreme Court subsequently found 924(c)(3)(B) unconstitutionally vague, United States v. Davis, (2019). The Third Circuit granted the petitions, noting that they are now timely under Davis, precluding the need for analysis of the applicability of Johnson and Dimaya. View "In re: Williams" on Justia Law

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Inmate Mammana felt ill after eating and visited the medical ward. A physician assistant checked Mammana’s blood sugar level, and told Mammana “to return the following day after eating.” For several days, Mammana continued to feel ill after eating and returned to the medical ward. The physician assistant referred Mammana to Allenwood’s psychologist, who could not determine the cause of Mammana’s discomfort. Medical Assistant Taylor said she would not re-admit Mammana to the medical ward, despite having never examined Mammana. Nonetheless, Mammana was escorted back to the medical ward. After taking his blood pressure, Taylor accused him of “harassment, stalking, and interference with the performance of duties.” Mammana was transferred to administrative segregation. Mammana refused his assigned segregation cell and was placed into the “Yellow Room,” which was regarded as “mental and physical abuse.” Mammana was stripped of his clothing and given only “paper-like” coverings; the room had a “bright light” "24 hours a day” and was “uncomfortably cold.” Mammana had no bedding or toilet paper. Mammana continued to feel ill, yet his requests for medical treatment were refused. Mammana remained in the Yellow Room for four days. A hearing board eventually concluded “there was no basis” for Taylor’s report. Mammana remained in administrative segregation for four months after leaving the Yellow Room. The district court dismissed his claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of his Eighth Amendment claim; Mammana has adequately alleged a sufficiently serious deprivation rather than merely “uncomfortable” conditions. View "Mammana v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission sets and collects Turnpike tolls. Act 44 (2007) authorized the Commission to increase tolls and required it to make annual payments for 50 years to the PennDOT Trust Fund. Act 89 (2013) continued to permit toll increases but lowered the annual PennDOT payments. Plaintiffs, individuals and members of groups who pay Turnpike tolls, assert that since the enactment of Act 44, tolls have increased more than 200% and that the current cost for the heaviest vehicles to cross from New Jersey to Ohio exceeds $1800. Pennsylvania’s Auditor General found that the annual “costly toll increases place an undue burden” on Pennsylvanians and that “the average turnpike traveler will ... seek alternative toll-free routes.” More than 90 percent of Act 44/89 payments—approximately $425 million annually— benefit “non-Turnpike road and bridge projects and transit operations.” Plaintiffs sued, alleging violations of the dormant Commerce Clause and their right to travel. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, 105 Stat. 1914 permits state authorities to use the tolls for non-Turnpike purposes, so the collection and use of the tolls do not implicate the Commerce Clause. Plaintiffs have not alleged that their right to travel to, from, and within Pennsylvania has been deterred, so their right to travel has not been infringed. View "Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania inmate Shifflett was attacked by fellow inmates who broke his jaw. The surgery on his jaw went badly, causing him intense pain for most of a year. He alleges he was denied adequate pain medication and given the run-around by different providers, each saying it was someone else’s responsibility. Shifflett claims he had still not received fully adequate corrective surgery over eight months later. The district court dismissed his suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for deliberate indifference to severe medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment and retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, finding that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies within the prison system as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, 42 U.S.C. 1997e. The Third Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions to appoint counsel and to permit the filing of an amended complaint. A prisoner exhausts his administrative remedies as soon as the prison fails to respond to a properly submitted grievance in a timely fashion. Shifflett exhausted his remedies and acquired the right to file in federal court when the prison did not decide the initial appeal of his grievances within the time limits specified by the grievance policy. View "Shifflett v. Korszniak" on Justia Law

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In 1987, Romansky was convicted of car theft-related crimes. His case worked its way through the Pennsylvania courts and eventually generated a federal habeas corpus petition. The district court denied “Romansky’s lengthy, multifaceted petition” and declined to grant a certificate of appealability. The Third Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on two issues. The court then affirmed, concluding that the petition is not timely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d) as to claims concerning the events surrounding Romansky’s first trial in 1987. Romansky’s post-conviction claim as to that trial was not resolved until 1997; the limitations period would have expired one year later, in 1998. This petition, alleging that he was deprived of due process by the discrepancy between the conspiracy charge as described in the charging documents and the charge as presented to the jury, was not filed until 2009. The sentence imposed in 2000 after a retrial was not a new judgment on the undisturbed counts of conviction. Romansky was not denied the effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer during the 2000 retrial and resentencing refused to raise the issue of the 1987 conspiracy-charge discrepancy despite repeated requests that he do so. View "Romansky v. Superintendent Greene SCI" on Justia Law