Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Section 306(a.2) of the Workers' Compensation Act allowed employers to demand that a claimant undergo an impairment -rating evaluation (IRE), during which a physician must determine the "degree of impairment" that is due to the claimant's compensable injury. In order to make this assessment, the Act required physicians to apply the methodology set forth in "the most recent edition" of the American Medical Association (AMA) Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment. In consolidated appeals, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether this mandate violated the constitutional requirement that all legislative power "be vested in a General Assembly, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives." In 2007, Mary Ann Protz sustained a work -related knee injury. Her employer, Derry Area School District (Derry), voluntarily began paying temporary total disability benefits. An IRE physician evaluated Protz and assigned to her a 10% impairment rating based upon the Sixth Edition of the American Medical Association Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (the Guides). Because Protz's impairment rating was less than 50%, Derry filed a modification petition seeking to convert Protz's disability status from total to partial -the effect of which would be to limit the duration that Protz could receive workers' compensation benefits. A Workers' Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the petition. Protz appealed to the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, arguing that the General Assembly unconstitutionally delegated to the AMA the authority to establish criteria for evaluating permanent impairment. The Board rejected Protz's constitutional argument and affirmed the WCJ's decision. The Commonwealth Court reversed the Board, finding that the Act lacked "adequate standards to guide and restrain the AMA's exercise" of its delegated power to create a methodology for grading impairment. Derry and Protz appealed. The Supreme Court concluded the Pennsylvania Constitution prevented the General Assembly from passing off to another branch or body de facto control over matters of policy. The Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court's holding that Section 306(a.2) violated the non-delegation doctrine, however, found that Section 306(a.2) was unconstitutional in its entirety. View "Protz v. Workers Compensation Appeals Board" on Justia Law

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In consolidated cross-appeals, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted review to consider whether three statutory provisions, the “Donated or Dedicated Property Act” (“DDPA”), the “Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act” (“Project 70 Act”), and the Eminent Domain Code, allow Appellant Downingtown Borough (“Borough”) to sell four parcels of land to private housing developers , Appellants Progressive Housing Ventures, LLC and J. Loew and Associates, Inc. (“Developers”). The four parcels comprised a public community park owned and maintained by the Borough, and were held by the Borough as trustee. After review, the Court vacated the order of the Commonwealth Court with respect to the Borough’s proposed sale to Developers of two southern parcels, reversed the order regarding the proposed sale by the Borough to Developers of two northern parcels, and reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court involving the Borough’s grant of easements to Developers over all parcels. The Borough was required to obtain court approval before selling the parcels, and easements over the land would have subordinated public rights to the parcels to private rights. View "Downingtown Borough (Friends of Kardon Park, Aplts)" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court examined the contours of the 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution in light of a declaratory judgment action brought by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“Foundation”) challenging, inter alia, the constitutionality of statutory enactments relating to funds generated from the leasing of state forest and park lands for oil and gas exploration and extraction. Because state parks and forests, including the oil and gas minerals therein, were part of the corpus of Pennsylvania’s environmental public trust, the Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth, as trustee, had to manage them according to the plain language of Section 27, which imposed fiduciary duties consistent with Pennsylvania trust law. The Court further found that the constitutional language controlled how the Commonwealth may dispose of any proceeds generated from the sale of its public natural resources. View "PA Env. Defense Fdn. v. Wolf" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether video components of motor vehicle recordings (MVRs) created by appellant Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) were exempt from disclosure to the public as criminal investigative records under the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) or the Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA). The Court also considered whether these recordings implicated provisions of the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act (Wiretap Act). The Commonwealth Court held MVRs generally are public records subject to disclosure, and affirmed in part the decision of the Office of Open Records (OOR) directing PSP to provide MVRs to appellee Michelle Grove. The Commonwealth Court also reversed in part, remanding the matter to the OOR with instructions for redaction of the audio portions of the MVRs before disclosure. The Supreme Court concluded that disclosure of the MVRs pursuant to the RTKL did not violate the Wiretap Act, and reversed that portion of the Commonwealth Court’s order that suggested additional findings with respect to notice were warranted on remand. The Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court's order in all other respects. View "PA State Police v. Grove" on Justia Law

Posted in: Constitutional Law

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In a capital post-conviction appeal, Appellant Michael Pruitt raised six challenges, several of which fell within the category of the claims deemed to have been abandoned by the PCRA court. In 2003, Appellant forcibly entered the home of Greta Gougler, where he robbed, raped, and murdered her. Appellant was arrested, tried, and convicted for first -degree murder, rape, robbery, and other offenses, and a jury returned a death verdict in a capital sentencing proceeding. On direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. In 2009, Appellant brought these proceedings under the Post Conviction Relief Act (the "PCRA"). The post -conviction court conducted a series of evidentiary hearings, throughout which Appellant was represented by the members of the Federal Community Defender Office. Later, per Appellant's request, those attorneys were removed from the representation and new counsel was appointed in their place. In 2015, Appellant submitted a request to proceed pro se. The PCRA court scheduled a proceeding, at which Appellant agreed to continue to be represented by counsel but was deemed by the court to have "knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily abandon[ed] any issues raised by prior PCRA counsel and/or [current counsel] that are not contained in [a] memorandum in support of the PCRA relief petition filed this date[.]" The PCRA court subsequently denied relief on the remaining claims for relief. This appeal followed. The Supreme Court concluded the record supported the PCRA court's determination that Appellant abandoned the six claims at issue here, and affirmed the court's subsequent order. View "Pennsylvania v. Pruitt" on Justia Law

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Appellant Leon Mills challenged a superior court decision to overturn a county court’s finding of a violation of Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 that he receive a prompt trial. The Rule requires that trial commence within 365 days from the date the criminal complaint is filed. Delays at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when it fails to exercise due diligence count in the 365-day tally. On June 6, 2011, the Commonwealth filed a complaint against Appellant charging him with a series of crimes arising out of a drive -by shooting, including attempted murder and aggravated assault. At a status meeting on March 20, 2012, however, per the Commonwealth's request, trial was continued. Trial was rescheduled to September 10, 2012. The outcome of the dismissal motion turned on whether or not 174 days was to be included or excluded in the 365 -day calculation. The common pleas court enforced the rule's main directive, and dismissed. Upon review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Appellant that time attributable to the normal progression of a case simply was not "delay" for purposes of Rule 600, and reinstated the dismissal order. View "Pennsylvania v. Mills" on Justia Law

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Petitioner challenged as unconstitutional certain restrictions imposed upon attorneys who were employed by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (Board), and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The Board filed preliminary objections, asserting petitioner lacked standing to pursue her claim, her claim was not yet ripe, and in any event, her claim failed on the merits. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the Board’s preliminary objections as to standing and ripeness, but nevertheless concluded petitioner was not entitled to relief on the merits as the restrictions included in the Gaming Act were constitutionally sound. View "Yocum v. PA Gaming Control Board" on Justia Law

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Appellee was charged with a single count of possession with intent to distribute, or possession, of a “designer drug,” a substance similar to a scheduled controlled substance, not the same. The trial court here determined experts have been unable to reach an agreement on a method for analyzing and determining the similarities between the chemical structures the controlled substance and its designer analogue, leading it to conclude this disagreement rendered the Pennsylvania designer drug statute unconstitutionally vague. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding the common pleas court did not account for the difference between the concepts of analogue and substantial similarity, the latter of which is more readily apprehensible to the lay citizen in the context of comparing chemical structures; nor did it recognize that, unlike the controlled-substance provision, the designer drug provision included a narrowing scienter specification. Moreover, the Court found in this case that there were “considerable similarities” as between the two molecules based on their two-dimensional diagrams. View "Pennsylvania v. Herman" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed appellant Marcel Johnson’s convictions and his sentence of death for the 2013 murder of Ebony Talley, her unborn child, and her four-year-old daughter, R.R. In this automatic direct appeal, Johnson raised nine issues for review. After thorough consideration of these issues, the Court affirmed his convictions and the imposition of the death sentence. View "Pennsylvania v. Johnson" on Justia Law

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Trial courts must identify the circumstances that make it reasonable to infer that the property owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity before allowing a civil in rem forfeiture of that property. The proper constitutional construct in determining whether an in rem forfeiture violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment requires an initial determination regarding the relationship between the forfeited property and the underlying offense (the instrumentality prong). If this threshold prong is satisfied, the next step of the analysis is a proportionality inquiry in which the value of the property sought to be forfeited is compared to the gravity of the underlying offense to determine whether the forfeiture is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. A 71-year-old grandmother who owned the house in which she lived, and owned a 1997 Chevrolet minivan, suffered from blood clots in her lungs, was hospitalized, and released, ordered to bed rest. Her adult son and two grandchildren also lived in the house. The son sold drugs from the house and the van, without his mother’s knowledge. The Commonwealth filed a petition for forfeiture of the house and minivan, with the trial court determining there was a nexus between the seized house and violations of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act). The trial court rejected the grandmother’s statutory innocent owner defense afforded by the Forfeiture Act because, after the police notified her of her son’s drug activities (through service of search warrants and personally informing her of the activities) she “refused to take any proactive measures or steps to demonstrate her lack of consent to this illegal activity. The Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court, concluding that the lower tribunal applied an erroneous standard for determining whether the forfeiture violated the Eighth Amendment, and that it failed to consider all relevant circumstances in rejecting the innocent owner defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the Commonwealth Court. View "Pennsylvania v. 1997 Chevrolet, etc." on Justia Law