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December 2022 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Dec 30, 2022 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 3 precedential opinions and 2 grants of allocatur.

On the opinion side, nothing so entertaining as a good Christmas movie, but a few interesting points worth making.  In Gibraltar Rock, the Court reemphasized that lower appellate courts should not raise issues sua sponte, a practice that is as widespread as it is erroneous, particularly in situations where courts would prefer to avoid decisions on the merits.  But there's something to the point: a litigant should have to face his adversary, not his adversary and the arbiters.  And in Reibenstein, the court, in three opinions, highlights and evaluates the merits of three kinds of "cause of death."  Although Reibenstein is a civil case and deals with statutory interpretation, there is a significant amount of language on narrow and broad interpretations of causation by the medical and legal communities that practitioners would be wise to keep in their stockings in the event of any issue involving death, whether it be civil or criminal.

On the allocatur side, Lehman is interesting in that it will consider whether a man who overdosed living in a halfway house in Downtown Pittsburgh as a condition of parole was an "inmate" in terms of an offense making it a crime for inmates to possess drugs.  In an opinion authored by Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini, known as something of an intellectual force in Pennsylvania appellate jurisprudence, a 2-1 majority of a panel of the Superior Court answered no.  But a dissent authored by Judge Mary Jane Bowes, equally regarded as a brilliant jurist, came to the opposite conclusion.  The opinions stand on the opposite sides of trying to draw a line between "in jail" and "out of jail" that has been difficult for courts in a variety of contexts over the years, ranging from awards of credit for time served to offenses like this one which are predicated on an individual's custodial status.  

Lehman poses an interesting question in its own right, but also highlights some things to look for in an allocatur grant.  The court below, via two esteemed judges, addressed the issue in great detail, and, frankly, both came to reasonable conclusions.  And the reasoning used to shed light on this issue may be easily exportable to those other areas of law and other, similar offenses applicable to inmates.  In short, Lehman provides the Court with excellent, fleshed out positions and can implicate innumerable cases going forward in several areas of the law.

Precedential Opinions

Gibraltar Rock, Inc. v. DEP, 78 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (reversing Commonwealth Court's sua sponte consideration and reversal on the basis of issues not raised by the parties in a quarry permit proceeding)

Central Dauphin Sch. Dist. v. Hawkins, 88 MAP 2021 (Concurring Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (addressing the intersection of federal student privacy laws and the Right to Know Law vis-a-vis school-bus surveillance video)

Reibenstein v. Barax, 32 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (narrowly interpreting the scope of the exception to the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases in the MCARE Act for cases in which there was concealment of the "cause of death" to refer to medical cause of death, rather than the broader legal cause of death)

Allocatur Grants

Commonwealth v. Lehman, 202 WAL 2022 (granting review to consider the proper interpretation of the term "inmate" in the offense of possession of contraband by an inmate)

Commonwealth v. Hardy, 185 WAL 2022 (granting review to consider several issues related to a petitioner's request for DNA testing of certain evidence pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act)

About the Author

Corrie Woods

Corrie is our primary litigator, and focuses his practice on appellate, criminal, and post-conviction cases. Corrie also authors the firm's blog, SCOPABlog, which is the only regularly updated blog providing comprehensive coverage of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's docket. Corrie became an a...

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