This month, the Court issued 3 precedential opinions and 2 allocatur grants.
On the opinion side, the most wide reaching of the three opinions this month is Drummond, in which the Court appears to hold that trial courts in instructing juries on reasonable doubts should exercise extreme caution when, or even just forbear from, providing illustrations of what a reasonable doubt is. In Drummond, the trial court in question illustrated the concept by referring to the level of certainty necessary to authorize surgery for a "precious one," or a loved one. The court recognized that this illustration not only potentially confused the jury about the level of certainty it needed, but also appeared to be wrong on the law. That said, the Court's pronouncement of the law in this regard might reasonably be distinguished in a subsequent case, or even argued to be dicta, as the Court reasoned that the overall claim Drummond presented -- that his counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the instruction -- lacked merit because the holding amounted to a change in the law, and counsel cannot be deemed ineffective for failing to anticipate a change in the law. Nevertheless, the opinion does represent a reminder to trial courts to avoid getting too folksy when it comes to the standard required to take someone's life and liberty.
On the allocatur side, in M.E.L., the court will wade into the area of family law and discuss something of a disjunct between the Adoption Law, written some time ago, and modern family configurations. In M.E.L., a mother sought and obtained termination of a father's parental rights in advance of her boyfriend's adoption of her child. Generally, both parents' rights must be terminated before adoption can occur, except for situations involving subsequent adoption by a parent's spouse (i.e., a stepparent), or in the court's discretion for cause shown. Generally, "cause shown" has excluded parents' paramours as a matter of public policy, albeit leaving the door open for "long-term" paramours to be putative adopters. In M.E.L., the court may be signaling an intent to revisit that line of decisions. Alternatively, it is notable that the mother raised a lot of her contentions before the Superior Court for the first time, so the case may end in a whimper that the Superior Court erred in raising and or addressing a waived claim.
McGuire v. City of Pittsburgh, 26 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that federal civil rights statute's element that the defendant be acting "under color of state law" is not coterminous with Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act's element that the defendant be acting within the "scope of his office or duties")
- See also Concurring Opinion by Donohue, J.
Commonwealth v. Coleman, 19 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Brobson, J.) (holding that a sentencing enhancement for individuals "previously convicted at any time of murder" applied to individual convicted of three murders at once)
Commonwealth v. Drummond, 28 EAP 2021 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding "illustrative" reasonable doubt instruction was likely to confuse the jury or result in the unconstitutional lowering of the standard of proof)
In Re Adopt. of: M.E.L., 440 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether the Superior Court erred in remanding for consideration of the "cause" exception for non-parent adoptions applies in the context of persons other than parent's spouses)
Commonwealth v. Womack, 229 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether time under the speedy trial provisions of Pa.R.Crim.P. 600 begins to run upon an initial complaint or subsequent complaint where the initial criminal case is subsumed within the subsequent criminal case)