Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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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

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In 1944, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted a county seal and agreed to purchase a flag depicting it. Commissioner Hertzog, who designed and voted for the seal, explained two years later: “in center of Shield appears the huge cross in canary-yellow signifying Christianity and the God-fearing people which are the foundation and backbone of our County.” The cross is partially obscured by a depiction of the Lehigh Courthouse and surrounded by many other symbols representing history, patriotism, culture, and economy. The seal appears on county-owned property and on various government documents, and on the county’s website. The district court found the seal unconstitutional under the Lemon test as modified by the endorsement test, after asking whether the cross lacked a secular purpose and whether a reasonable observer would perceive it as an endorsement of religion. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that the seal does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment under the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The court reasoned that a presumption of constitutionality applies to longstanding symbols like the Lehigh County seal and that the evidence does not show “discriminatory intent” in maintaining the symbol or “deliberate disrespect” in the design itself. View "Freedom From Religion Foundation v. County of Lehigh" on Justia Law

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Furgess has myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that inhibits his ability to see, walk, speak, and lift. He arrived at the Albion, Pennsylvania prison in 2014 and was provided with an accessible shower stall and a cell closer to the medical and dining halls, and was fitted for leg braces. In December 2015, Furgess was moved to the Restrictive Housing Unit, which was not equipped with handicapped-accessible shower facilities. Furgess was not provided with an accessible shower nor was he escorted to the infirmary shower facilities. On March 7, Furgess filed an unsuccessful grievance. He was moved to a handicapped-accessible cell but was not provided access to a shower. On March 16, Furgess was escorted to a shower that was not handicapped-accessible. The hot water exacerbated his symptoms, so Furgess tried to leave the shower room. Without rails or safety bars, he slipped and was knocked unconscious. He is now confined to a wheelchair and suffers from headaches and back pain. Furgess filed another unsuccessful grievance, then filed suit under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of his claims. The provision of showers is a program, service, or activity under the ADA and the RA; Furgess has adequately alleged that he was denied a shower “by reason of” his disability and that the Department was deliberately indifferent in failing to provide him with a handicapped-accessible shower. View "Furgess v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In 2003, Cordaro and his co-defendant were elected as two of three Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania county commissioners. About 30 percent of Ackers’ business was municipal engineering, mostly for Lackawanna County. McLaine, Acker’s principal, expressed concerns to Cordaro's friend, Hughes. Hughes arranged a meeting, telling McLaine to bring a list of Acker's existing work for the county. McLaine’s list included the Lackawanna Watershed 2000 Program, a multi-year project based on a $30 million congressional grant; work on the Main Street and Gilmartin Street Bridges; work for several municipal authorities; and surveying, paving, and mapping. Cordaro stated, “I think I can let you keep that, . . . if we’re having fundraisers you’re going to have to participate and support us.” McLaine agreed. After becoming aware that Acker might lose two large contracts, McLaine called Hughes, who called Cordaro. Hughes asked, “how much money ... to give for the work.” Cordaro said, “maybe $15,000.” Hughes told McLaine that if he gave him $10,000 a month for Cordaro, Hughes could guarantee that Acker would keep its contracts and that he would lose his work if he did not pay. Payments began. In 2011, Cordaro was convicted of bribery, 18 U.S.C. 666(a)(1)(B); Hobbs Act extortion, section 1951(a); and racketeering, sections 1962(c) and (d). The court instructed the jury that those crimes required an “official act.” In 2016, the Supreme Court (McDonnell) clarified what constitutes an “official act.” The Third Circuit affirmed the rejection of Cordaro’s habeas corpus (28 U.S.C. 2241) because Cordaro cannot show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror properly charged under McDonnell would have convicted him. View "Cordaro v. United States" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, undocumented aliens from Guatemala, have lived and worked in New York since 2008. They were traveling in a van with eight other men when Pennsylvania State Trooper Macke stopped the van for speeding. Petitioners were asleep in the back of the van. Macke approached the driver, who did not have his license with him. The van’s owner, in the front passenger seat, gave Macke his license and registration. Petitioners allege that instead of returning to his vehicle, Macke opened the side door and said to the passengers, ‘let me see your immigration papers, work permit, visa, passport and ID.’” Petitioners did not have any such documents. The government claims the Petitioners admitted that they were citizens of another country. Macke issued the driver's citations at 8:57 a.m.and ordered them to a nearby rest stop, where Macke positioned his car so that Petitioners’ van could not move. They claim that he interrogated them about their immigration status until ICE agents arrived at approximately 9:30 a.m. The government claimed that all freely stated that they had illegally entered the U.S. In removal proceedings, 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(6)(A)(i), Petitioners moved to suppress evidence of their alienage obtained as a result of the stop, arguing that it had been discovered through a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. They claimed that Macke stopped them because of their Hispanic appearance. The BIA rejected the argument. The Third Circuit remanded, concluding that Petitioners alleged a potentially egregious Fourth Amendment violation that warrants an evidentiary hearing. View "Yoc-Us v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Adams Outdoor Advertising sought a permit to install a billboard near an interchange on U.S. Route 22 in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation denied the permit because Pennsylvania law prohibits “off-premise” billboards within 500 feet of a highway interchange. Adams challenged the provision as too vague and under the First Amendment because there is no time limit for PennDOT’s decisions on applications. The district court ruled in Adams’ favor on the time-limit claim and entered an injunction barring the enforcement of the permit requirement until PennDOT establishes reasonable time limits on its permit decisions. The court dismissed Adams’ vagueness challenge and First Amendment scrutiny challenge. The Third Circuit agreed that the permit requirement violates the First Amendment because it lacks a reasonable time limit for permit determinations and that the Interchange Prohibition communicates clearly what it prohibits and is not vague. The court reversed in part. While the Interchange Prohibition is not subject to strict scrutiny, the record is insufficient to establish the required reasoning for the prohibition. View "Adams Outdoor Advertising Ltd v. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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Married criminal defendants, Hall and Blunt, were convicted of engaging in a scheme to collect unemployment compensation benefits from federal and state agencies by using the identities of military service people. They had been appointed separate defense counsel at the onset of their case, each of whom engaged in extensive motion practice at every stage of the trial proceedings. They sought to be re-tried separately so that they may each have an opportunity to present their cases without any unwarranted constraints. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of their motions for severance. The court noted that Blunt’s testimony resulted in “clear” prejudice against Hall, “both from an emotional and evidentiary standpoint.” Blunt clearly was compelled to waive her privilege and testify in her own defense at trial. She stated in her initial motion for severance that she was being made to choose between preserving her spousal privilege and providing exculpatory testimony on her own behalf. View "United States v. Blunt" on Justia Law

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Police officers kicked down doors of a Camden, New Jersey residence. Hours earlier, Forrest had finished work for a contractor across the street. He went to the residence to speak with acquaintances and was inside, waiting for a cab. According to Forrest, the officers beat threatened him, then took Forrest to the hospital. In the police report, Officer Parry wrote that he had observed Forrest engaging in a hand-to-hand drug transaction, that Forrest initiated the physical altercation with officers, and that Forrest was in possession of 49 bags of a controlled substance. Forrest filed an Internal Affairs complaint in July 2008 but had no response. Forrest pleaded guilty to possession with intent and served 18 months. He was released when Parry admitted that he had falsified the police report. Three officers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil rights, disrupting over 200 criminal cases. Forrest’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, 1985 was among 89 lawsuits against Camden. Forrest opted out of a global settlement. The district court unilaterally divided Forrest’s municipal liability claim into three theories: failure to supervise through Internal Affairs, failure to supervise, and failure to train. The court associated certain evidence to only the first theory, granted Camden summary judgment on the failure to supervise and train theories, excluded evidence that was material to the remaining theory, and “effectively awarded summary judgment on the state law negligent supervision claim.” The jury instructions confused the relevant law. The Third Circuit vacated. The artificial line, drawn by the district court, between what were ostensibly theories with largely overlapping evidence resulted in erroneous rulings as to what was relevant, and instructions as to what law the jury was to apply. View "Forrest v. Parry" on Justia Law