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July 2020 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Aug 02, 2020 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 17 precedential opinions (linked below) and 2 orders granting allocatur.

On the opinion side, the most headline-grabbing case is Wolf, in which the Court granted the Governor's request to declare the General Assembly's legislative veto of his coronavirus-related emergency orders invalid. Although the case likely generated the most media controversy, it was relatively straightforward: the Court adopted a federal decision precluding legislative vetoes and requiring that all laws be presented to the Governor before passing into law as part of Pennsylvania's constitutional jurisprudence decades ago, and, here, it merely interpreted (arguable) ambiguities in the Emergency Code to avoid an interpretation that would require it to scrap the provision entirely, a practice consistent with the longstanding constitutional avoidance canon of statutory interpretation.

Also notable is the Court's long, long-awaited decision in McClelland, in which it reaffirmed its holding in Commonwealth ex rel. Buchanan v. Verbonitz, 581 A.2d 172 (Pa. 1990), that the Commonwealth cannot establish a prima facie case by virtue of hearsay alone. Buchanan was splintered in its rationale, which, combined with other more practical circumstances, left room for the Superior Court to essentially disregard it in Commonwealth v. Ricker, 120 A.3d 349 (Pa. Super. 2015). Yet, Ricker was controversial from the outset, in part because of the significant constitutional discomfort attendant incarcerating defendants based on statements from individuals who refuse to make them in court. (For an interesting discussion of these aspects, check out Courtney M. Kenyon, Incarceration Without Confrontation: An In-Depth Look at Commonwealth v. Ricker.) No longer. McClelland is likely to lead not only to a stark readjustment of initial power dynamics in criminal cases, but also to questions about the Court's willingness to engage in more searching, qualitative sufficiency analysis.

Finally, administrative lawyers may want to take a look at Crown Castle. Although the Court's explicit holding — that an agency's interpretation of a plain and unambiguous statute is entitled no deference — is unremarkable, its application of that principle to the dense Pennsylvania Public Utility Code is something of another matter. This author is unaware of many provisions of that Code, or of most other agency-governing statutes, that aren't reasonably subject to patent or latent ambiguity, but I have a feeling we may be seeing some soon.

On the allocatur side, not a ton to speak of: the Court will consider the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court's limitation of third-party doctrine in Pacheco and the interstices of Pennsylvania constables' peculiar detention authority.

Precedential Opinions

  • Wolf v. Scarnati, 104 MM 2020 (Opinion by Wecht, J.) (holding that if the legislative veto in Section 7301 of the Emergency Management Services Code did not require presentment to the governor for approval or veto, it would violate the Pennsylvania constitutional presentment requirement, and, thus, construing Section 7301 as requiring presentment; holding that the legislature cannot unilaterally suspend laws)

Allocatur Grants

  • Commonwealth v. Pacheco, 79 MAL 2020 (granting review to consider whether an order permitting the Commonwealth to conduct 108 days of surveillance on a defendant's cellular site data violated the Fourth Amendment in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting third-party search doctrine)

  • Commonwealth v. Allen, 227 MAL 2019 (granting review to consider whether a constable who detains an individual for a “breach of the peace” may continue to detain the individual while another officer with greater authority comes to investigate additional offenses)

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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