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September 2023 Docket Review

Posted by Corrie Woods | Sep 30, 2023 | 0 Comments

This month, the Court issued 2 precedential opinions and 6 grants of allocatur. 

On the opinion side, the most impactful case of the two is clearly Weeks.  In that case, the court considered whether legislation from 2019, gutting the state's cash assistance program upon which thousands of poor Pennsylvanians relied and interposing certain medical benefits, among other things, violated some of the legislative-process requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Those requirements include that legislation must be passed via a bill with a single original purpose, a single subject, and a clear expression of that subject in the title.  Chief Justice Todd, writing for a majority of the Court, held that the legislation was valid.  First, after providing a lengthy and scholarly analysis of the single-subject requirement, the Chief Justice explained that associated caselaw has "waxed and waned" as to just how much deference is provided to the legislature in crafting multifaceted legislation, and settled on a standard that all facets "must be part of a unifying scheme to accomplish a single, potentially broad, but not unduly expansive, purpose."  Applying that rubric, Chief Justice Todd found that, although the question was close, the legislation's facets were all part of a unified subject of moving from cash assistance to health-specific benefits.  Second, employing similar reasoning, the court found that the legislation had always had such a purpose, and that it was not deceptively titled.

The secondary opinions are worth a view as well, particularly Justice Mundy's concurrence suggesting that there is no constitutional textual support for a requirement that a bill not be deceptively titled, Justice Donohue's dissent taking the majority to task for what she appeared to view as creative opinion writing, and Justice Wecht's dissent issuing something of a clarion call to retrench and reinvigorate the 19th-century reform spirit that animated these provisions.

In my humble opinion, Weeks, and **McGee, in which a 4-2 majority raises a factual issue sua sponte and affirms without addressing the question upon which it granted allocatur, both read as if they are efforts to coalesce a majority on a six-member court and avoid a worse result or a stalemate or a fractured decision.  And while there's not necessarily anything wrong with that (or with the substantive analysis in the opinions), it does say something about the evolution of the Court: this isn't 2021.  The retirement of Chief Justice Saylor and the unfortunate passing of Chief Justice Baer, coupled with the election of Justice Brobson, have shifted (or entropized?) the composition of the court on many issues, and the November election is likely to profoundly impact where the court goes from here.

On the allocatur side, I'm most interested in ShultzSantiago, and Mertira, which all involve civil liability for recreational activities.  The above discussion of the court's shift notwithstanding, litigants seeking to expand civil liability have found a lot of success with the Court, in large part due to Justice Mundy's broad, if counterintuitive, judicial philosophical alignment with plaintiffs and the plaintiffs' bar.  Although, as I explained last month, there seems to be something of a high-tide in the works, I wouldn't be surprised to see each of these three come out in favor of the plaintiffs.

Precedential Opinions

**Commonwealth v. McGee, 17 WAP 2022 (Majority Opinion by Todd, C.J.) (finding that the sentencing order challenged did not contain a patent defect and therefore failing to reach whether such an order may be challenged pursuant to a trial court's inherent authority to correct mistakes notwithstanding the time-bar provisions of the PCRA)

Weeks v. DHS, 22 EAP 2021 (Majority Opinion by Todd, C.J.) (holding legislation, inter alia, eliminating Pennsylvania's cash assistance program, did not violate several legislative-process provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution)

Allocatur Grants

Pignetti v. Pa. DOT, 38 & 39 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider the Commonwealth's alleged addition of requirements onto the Eminent Domain Code)

Shultz v. Sky Zone, 97 EAL 2023 (granting review to consider the reach of an arbitration agreement entered into by a child's father prior to the child's injury at a trampoline park)

Santiago v. Philly Trampoline Park, 96 EAL 2023 (also granting review to consider the reach of an arbitration agreement entered into by a child's father prior to the child's injury at a trampoline park)

Commonwealth v. Roberts, 75 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether the Commonwealth must prove scienter to establish the offense of failure to register as a sexual offender)

Mertira v. Camelback Lodge, 87 MAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether and under what circumstances to apply the hills and ridges doctrine to winter-weather activities)

**Landlord Svc. Bureau v. City of Pgh, 82 WAL 2023 (granting review to consider whether a rental registration ordinance requiring the hiring of a local agent violates the Home Rule Charter and Optional Plans Law's business exclusion provisions)

** In full disclosure, the undersigned was, or is, party-counsel in McGee and Landlord Svc. Bureau, and with respect to McGee, certainly hopes his view isn't just sour grapes.

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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