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February 2023 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Feb 28, 2023 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 8 precedential opinions and 5 grants of allocatur.

On the opinion side, I'm most interested in the Court's decision in Ball, which holds that the Election Code's dating requirements for absentee and mail-in ballots are mandatory, rather than directory, such that undated ballots should not be counted.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that the Court was equally divided on whether that interpretation of the Code occasions a violation of federal civil rights law.  There are good arguments that it does, but they will have to be forwarded to a future iteration of the Court after November's election of a new Justice, or, more likely, to Judge Susan Paradise Baxter of the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the NAACP and League of Women Voters have brought an action arguing the point.  In short, this one's not really over yet.

Another item of note is that the Court was unable to reach a binding decision at all in two additional matters that are sure to recur.  In the first, Commonwealth v. Verbeck, the Court was equally divided as to whether the Legislature's provision that second-time DUI defendants who previously accepted alternative rehabilitative disposition of their first DUI's be sentenced as recidivists was constitutional, in part because such a disposition is not a criminal conviction as such.  The Court's equal division led to an affirmance of the Superior Court's panel decision in Verbeck's case, which found the provision unconstitutional.  However, the Court's inability to establish precedent on the point leaves the Superior Court's en banc decisions in two other cases in place, and those cases held precisely the opposite.  In the other, GM Berkshire Hills, LLC v. Berks County Bd. of Assessment, the court was to address whether certain taxing-body discrimination in selecting which properties to reassess violates the taxation Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Again, the Court's equal division means it establishes no precedent, and leaves in place lower court determinations that no constitutional violation occurred, Justice Christine Donohue's excellent Opinion in Support of Reversal notwithstanding.

Suffice it to say that DUIs, not to mention local taxes, are not likely to wane over the next year or so.  The present gridlock notwithstanding, the savvy advocate will look to these decisions for guidance as to how persuade the Justices (and their new colleague) come January 2024.

On the allocatur side, things are pretty dry this month, but the case with the most impact is likely to be Dressler, which puts the Court in the position of deciding the meaning of a lease provision concerning the deduction of post-production costs from royalties in the oil and gas industry, which operates almost exclusively on boilerplate agreements often derived from other jurisdictions' law.  In prior cases, the Court has not shied from taking a different view of lease interpretation than say, Texas, and, particularly given the Court's almost exclusively pro-consumer record over the last few years, it will be interesting to see which of the competing values of industry-uniformity and landowner protection emerge prioritized.

Precedential Opinions

Ball v. Chapman, 102 MM 2022 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that the date requirements for absentee and mail in ballots are mandatory, rather than directory)

Erie Insurance Exchange v. Mione, 89 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that an auto-insurance household exclusion was not per se unenforceable as a de facto illegal waiver of stacking)

Commonwealth v. Wallace, 93 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Todd, C.J.) (holding that global-positioning-system data was not inadmissible on the ground that it was hearsay because it was not a declarant's statement)

Synthes USA HQ v. Commonwealth, 11 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the Attorney General had authority to assert a position contrary to another executive agency, and interpreting and applying corporate income tax law in the context of a multi-state busines enterprise)

Clean Air Council v. DEP, 73 & 74 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J. )  (holding that the Environment Hearing Board's rule limiting awards of attorneys fees against private parties to litigation in bad faith was contrary to statute and predicated on an overbroad reading of precedent)

Myers v. Commonwealth, 67 & 68 MAP 2021 (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (interpreting and applying sales tax law in the context of coupon purchases)

United States v. Harris, 5 EAP 2022 (Opinion by Todd, C.J.) (holding that the offense of aggravated assault has no requirement of physical force)

Commonwealth v. Johnson, 792 CAP (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (rejecting some 22 claims in a capital post-conviction appeal)

Allocatur Grants

KEM Resources v. Ryvamat, 349 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider the limitations period for claims seeking an accounting)

A.M.D v. A.L.R, 588 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider application of the collateral order doctrine in a family law case)

Sicilia v. API Roofers, 287 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider the Commonwealth Court's observance of the standard of review in a workers' compensation case)

Dressler v. PennEnergy Resources, 208 WAL 2022 (granting review to consider interpretive and evidentiary questions regarding the deduction of post-production costs from oil and gas royalties)

Ursinus College v. PWAB, 380 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether the Prevailing Wage Act applies to a construction project funded by a public authority's issuance of municipal bonds)

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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