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December 2020 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Jan 03, 2021 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 12 precedential opinions and 7 orders granting allocatur.

On the opinion side, perhaps the most widely applicable case is Alexander, which holds that all warrantless automobile searches in Pennsylvania must be supported by both probable cause and exigent circumstances. The Court's decision recognizes the limitations of an earlier case by a then-very politically conservative court which purported to adopt the federal rule, which allows searches based on probable cause alone, despite years of Pennsylvania precedent for the rule requiring both. It's not only excellently written by Justice Donohue, but also highlights an important principle in Pennsylvania constitutional jurisprudence: rights against unreasonable searches and seizures exist for privacy's sake, not just as a deterrent against police misconduct. It also serves as a reminder that federalism is not always politically conservative, and that the judicial activists are not always the political liberals.

Also interesting is Justice Wecht's concurrence in Peck, which gently expresses some degree of frustration with the overuse of the term “absurd,” this time in the context of statutory construction. Justice Wecht cites to no other than the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Professor Bryan Garner for the proposition that the canon of construction against absurdity is overplayed, and should be circumscribed to situations that are actually absurd, not just contrary to how the litigator would prefer them to be.

Two thoughts: first, given that it is much more difficult to explain why a particular interpretation or result is merely bad analytically, or contrary to legislative intent and purpose, it is a common argument of last resort (often near a filing deadline) to simply shout that it is absurd and move on to the next issue. Keen advocates should take note and pull back on this particular epithet.

On the allocatur side, perhaps the entire criminal appellate/post-conviction defense bar will be keeping watch for Bradley, which seems to signal that the Court may be willing to undo decades of precedent artificially making it functionally impossible to challenge the effectiveness of one's post-conviction counsel by creating a mechanism to do so. The decisions setting up the proverbial roadblocks came initially at a time when the Court, statutorily obliged to review all capital PCRA direct appeals, were essentially inundated with them to the point that its law-developing function was undermined. But they were never particularly persuasive in their reasoning, and this Court has been revisiting them and hewing closer to the PCRA's text.

Precedential Opinions

Allocatur Grants

  • Commonwealth v. Jordan, 269 WAL 2020 (granting review to consider the validity of inconsistent verdicts in consolidated jury/bench trials)

  • Mohn v. Bucks County Republican Comm., 156 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider the justiciability of certain intra-political-party disputes)

  • Commonwealth v. Dixon, 207 WAL 2020 (granting review to consider issues regarding special interrogatories regarding the grading of a count of witness intimidation)

  • Commonwealth v. Bradley, 230 EAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether to adopt a more meaningful mechanism for the vindication of the right to effective PCRA counsel)

  • Commonwealth v. Kale, 302-303 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether the Pennsylvania State Police have a right to be served with any petition seeking to declare that an individual is not subject to sexual offender registration requirements)

  • Commonwealth v. Purnell, 351 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether and under what circumstances a child victim may utilize an emotional support pet while testifying)

  • In re: Trust of Ashton, 203 EAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether a beneficiary has automatic standing to challenge all of a trustee's breaches of fiduciary duties toward the trust or must demonstrate standing to challenge the trustee's particular breaches)

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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