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October 2022 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Oct 31, 2022 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 4 precedential opinions and 5 allocatur grants.

On the opinion side, the Court in Scott dealt with a creative, if ill-fated, effort to challenge Pennsylvania's statute providing that defendants convicted of second-degree murder (i.e., committing a felony during which someone is killed) are subject to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  The petitioners, noting that the "life imprisonment" portion of the statute is located in the Sentencing Code, and that the "without parole" portion of the statute emanates from the Parole Code, brought a global challenge to the latter in the Commonwealth Court.  One big advantage of this method would have been that the petitioners would not have been subject to the sometimes Rhadamanthine time restrictions of the Post Conviction Relief Act, or PCRA.  The Court, however, appears to have viewed the distinction as something of an attempt at sleight-of-hand, essentially holding that both components were part of the petitioners' "sentence," and, thus, redirecting them right back to the PCRA.  Its analysis is fair, if perhaps not as strong as Justice Wecht's in dissent.

On the allocatur side, the Court granted review in Walters to consider an issue near and dear to this author's heart: the use of "expert" testimony as a conduit for hearsay.  Pennsylvania's approach to the rules of evidence applicable to experts has a number of problems.  Perhaps chief among them is that Pennsylvania continues to abide by the long-federally-discarded "general acceptance" test whereby if an "expert" in a field uses a methodology that is generally accepted in the field, his testimony is admissible.  That's all well and good when it comes to medical doctors, but the principle that courts should not inquire into the validity of scientific disciplines falls apart a bit when applied to, say, forensic scientists, such as "bite mark" technicians, whose disciplines are not very scientific.  The reductio ad absurdum here is that alchemists, psychics, and spirit guides all use methods widely accepted in their fields.

In Walters, the problem is a bit more inside: it is commonplace in many cases, and particularly sexual abuse cases, that an "expert" of some kind, whether a medical doctor, or a forensic nurse, or so on, will testify to an opinion based on "history."  Whether or not it is common for those in the medical field to root their opinions solely on "history," there is something of an ill-fit when the history is what is actually at issue in trial.  Experts can certainly rely on field-appropriate foundations, but their opinions should not be substitutes for trials in their entirety.  It will be interesting to see how the Court balances the evidentiary and scientific problems here with the constitutional adjudicatory process.

Precedential Opinions

In re: American Network Ins. Co., 58 MAP 2021 et al. (Opinion by Mundy, J.) (affirming a Commonwealth Court decision rejecting an insurer-liquidation proposal, but addressing threshold jurisdictional issues attendant ad hoc procedures in the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction)

In the Interest of K.N.L., 1 EAP 2022 (Opinion by Dougherty, J.) (clarifying third-party standing principles in adoption cases)

Commonwealth v. Price, 18 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that the issue of inevitable discovery is not subsidiary to the question of probable cause such that it is subsumed within a concise statement raising the latter)

Scott v. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 16 WAP 2021 (Opinion by Donohue, J.) (holding that a challenge to Pennsylvania's life-without-parole statute as unconstitutional is subsumed within the Post Conviction Relief Act and cannot be brought against parole authorities in an action in the Commonwealth Court)

Allocatur Grants

Commonwealth v. Harris, 104 EAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether the Commonwealth may satisfy its burden at a preliminary hearing via non-hearsay evidence of a crime and hearsay evidence of a defendant's identity)

Kramer v. Nationwide Prop. and Cas. Ins. Co., 113 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider whether an insurance policy covering bodily injury included coverage for emotional distress)

Commonwealth v. Walters, 195 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider the admissibility of a medical diagnosis made solely on the basis of "history" and not made with sufficient certainty)

Oberholzer v. Galapo, 154 MAL 2022 (granting review to consider the application of prior restraint doctrine to language giving rise to non-defamatory torts)

Abington Heights Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Lab. Rels. Bd., 118 MAL 2022 et al. (granting review to consider various claims arising out of a public collective bargaining dispute)

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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