Justia Government & Administrative Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
by
Charlestown Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, enacted a zoning ordinance that permitted outdoor billboards in a particular district. A statewide regulation concerning roadside billboards promulgated by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) had the practical effect of barring that use. Charlestown Outdoor, LLC, (“Outdoor”) sought nonetheless to erect a billboard on property it leased in that zoning district. In pursuit of that objective, Outdoor filed a substantive-validity challenge to Charlestown Township’s ordinance, asserting that it was de facto exclusionary. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found it wasn't the zoning ordinance, but rather the statewide regulation, that precluded the proposed use. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the challenged zoning ordinance was not de facto exclusionary. It therefore affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s rejection of Outdoor’s validity challenge. View "In Re Charlestown Outdoor, LLC" on Justia Law

by
In 2008, Act 129 amended the Pennsylvania Electricity Generation Customer Choice and Competition Act for the purpose of promoting an energy efficiency and conservation (“EE&C”) program in Pennsylvania. This case centered around a provision in Act 129 that directed electric distribution companies (“EDCs”) in the Commonwealth to “furnish” smart electric technology to their customers. Several electric customers instituted legal action against the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”) to prevent the installation of smart meters at their homes. They contended a customer had the ability to opt-out of the installation of smart meters by EDCs. They also claimed that smart meters caused health problems and their installation constituted unsafe or unreasonable service under Section 1501 of the Public Utility Code. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded Act 129 indeed mandated that EDCs furnish smart meters to all electric customers within an electric distribution service area and did not provide electric customers the ability to opt out of having a smart meter installed. An electric customer with concerns about smart meters may seek an accommodation from the PUC or EDC, but to obtain one ,the customer must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that installation of a smart meter violated Section 1501. In this case, the Court held the electric customers did not prove that installation of a smart meter at their premises violated Section 1501; therefore, the PUC was not required to prescribe any remedial action. Having so concluded, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling that Act 129 did not mandate the installation of smart meters. Additionally, the Supreme Court clarified the use of the conclusive causal connection standard for proving a violation under Section 1501 and held that a preponderance of the evidence was the standard that applied to claims brought under Section 1501. View "Povacz, et al. v. PUC, et al." on Justia Law

by
Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (“Act 140”) mandated the forfeiture of the pension of a public official or public employee when he or she was convicted of certain Pennsylvania crimes related to public office or public employment, or was convicted of federal offenses that were “substantially the same” as the forfeit-triggering state crimes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether a federal conviction for false statements to a federal agent, 18 U.S.C. § 1001 was “substantially the same” as the Pennsylvania crime of false reports to law enforcement authorities, 18 Pa.C.S. § 4906, for purposes of Act 140. The Supreme Court concluded that the two offenses were not “substantially the same,” and, thus, the Commonwealth Court erred in affirming the forfeiture of the pension of Appellant, former Municipal Court of Philadelphia County Judge Joseph O’Neill. View "O'Neill v. SERS" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (“PEDF”) challenged for the third time, the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In previous trips before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, PEDF challenged several 2009-2025 budgetary provisions enacted challenging the use of proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the Commonwealth’s forest and park lands as violative of Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (“Section 27” or “ERA”). In the first two cases, PEDF challenged several 2009-2015 budgetary provisions enacted in the wake of dramatic increases in oil and gas revenue resulting from Marcellus Shale exploration in Pennsylvania. Applying trust principles, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the budgetary provisions violated Section 27 by utilizing the oil and gas revenue for non-trust purposes via transfers to the General Fund. PEDF v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017) (“PEDF II”); PEDF v. Commonwealth, 255 A.3d 289 (Pa. 2021) (“PEDF V”). The underlying case here was one for a declaratory judgment, and named the Commonwealth and Governor as parties. Here, PEDF raised numerous constitutional challenges to provisions of the General Appropriations Act of 2017 and 2018, as well as the 2017 Fiscal Code amendments, all of which were enacted after the Supreme Court’s decision in PEDF II. After review , the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court, whilst rejecting that court;s analysis derived from PEDF III. View "PA Enviro Defense Fdn, Aplt. v. Commonwealth" on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a question of whether the General Assembly overstepped its constitutional authority by enacting legislation that allowed for universal mail-in voting. Among other things, "Act 77" effected major amendments to the Pennsylvania Election Code, including universal, state-wide mail-in voting. On November 21, 2020, eight petitioners – including a Republican congressman and Republican candidates for the United States House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – filed a petition for review with the Commonwealth Court seeking to halt the certification of the 2020 General Election, and including a facial challenge to the portions of Act 77 that established universal mail-in voting. The Supreme Court exercised extraordinary jurisdiction over the matter, and found a “complete failure to act with due diligence in commencing [the] facial constitutional challenge, which was ascertainable upon Act 77’s enactment[,]” as the petitioners waited until the ballots from the General Election were in the process of being tallied, and the results were becoming apparent, to raise their claim. Thus, the Court found the claim barred by the doctrine of laches. The Court found no restriction in the Pennsylvania Constitution on the General Assembly's ability to create universal mail-in voting. View "McLinko v. Penna. Dept. of State, et al." on Justia Law

by
Appellants Patrick and Pamela Lutz (“Homeowners”) owned a single-family, detached home on a half-acre lot along Kesslersville Road in Plainfield Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. The property was located in a farm and forest district under the township’s zoning code. Single-family dwellings were permitted in that district but, per the zoning code, they are subject to setback requirements. Homeowners decided to add onto the back of their home. The design called for an addition to extend to the building envelope in the back: to 50 feet shy of the rear property line, with a raised, covered deck extending 18 feet into the rear setback area. When Homeowners submitted their plan to the township for approval, the zoning officer sent them written notice that the deck would not be allowed because it intruded into 50-foot setback area. He observed Homeowners could seek relief from the zoning hearing board (the “Board”) in the form of a dimensional variance. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed appeal to consider whether the Commonwealth Court correctly applied its standard of appellate review relative to the grant of a dimensional zoning variance. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court was evenly divided; by operation of law, the Commonwealth Court’s judgment was thus affirmed. View "Kneebone v. Lutz" on Justia Law

by
Due to Pennsylvania's loss of population relative to the nation as a whole, Pennsylvania’s allotted number of congressional representatives declined from eighteen to seventeen. As a result, Pennsylvania required a new congressional districting plan drawn with only seventeen districts for the May 17, 2022, Primary Election. Because the General Assembly and the Governor failed to agree upon a congressional redistricting plan, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with that “unwelcome obligation.” After deliberating and affording due consideration to a Special Master’s findings and recommendation and reviewing de novo the relative merit of the submitted congressional plans, the Court respectfully declined to adopt the Special Master’s analysis and ultimate plan selection. Rather, on February 23, 2022, the Supreme Court entered a per curiam order, directing that the Pennsylvania primary and general elections for seats in the United States House of Representatives commencing in 2022 would be conducted in accordance with the plan submitted to the Special Master by the Carter Petitioners. The Court's order indicated that an opinion would follow, and this opinion was filed in accordance therewith. View "Carter, et al. v. Chapman, et al." on Justia Law

by
Mother J.B., lived with her two young children (“Y.W.-B” and “N.W.-B”) and the children’s father (“Father”) in Philadelphia. In 2019, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (“DHS”) allegedly received a general protective services report (“GPS report”) from an unidentified source alleging possible neglect by Mother. Although DHS referenced this GPS report several times at the evidentiary hearing and used it to refresh its sole witness’s recollection, it inexplicably never introduced it into evidence. The proceedings revealed the allegation suggested Mother was homeless and failed to feed one of her children during a single eight-hour period. DHS used this allegation as grounds to enter and inspect the family residence. The issue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether DHS established sufficient probable cause for the trial court to issue the order permitting entry into the home without consent. To this, the Court concluded DHS did not establish probable cause, and thus reversed the order of the Superior Court holding to the contrary. View "In the Interest of: N.W.-B." on Justia Law

by
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted expedited review of this direct appeal to decide whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam (“the Secretary”) lacked the power under existing law and Department of Health regulations to require individuals to wear facial coverings while inside Pennsylvania’s schools as a means of controlling the spread of COVID-19. Having determined that the Secretary exceeded her authority in issuing that directive, by per curiam order on December 10, 2021, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision nullifying the mandate, and published this opinion expounding on its reasoning. View "Corman, J., et al. v. Beam" on Justia Law

by
The issue this appeal presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review involved the proposed redevelopment of a 90-year-old abandoned two-story industrial building, consisting of approximately 14,000 square feet, formerly used as a garage/warehouse facility. In 2013, Appellant Metal Green Inc. purchased the property at a sheriff’s sale for approximately $90,000. In August 2016, Mt. Airy USA, a local nonprofit, commenced a legal action against Metal Green pursuant to the 2008 Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act (“Act 135”). A court declared the property to be blighted and abandoned and ordered Metal Green to remediate the hazards that the property posed to the community. While the court possessed the authority to order the demolition of the building, it held such action in abeyance, allowing Metal Green to not only make necessary repairs, but to pursue redevelopment of the property. The Department of Licenses and Inspections denied Metal Green’s application for a building permit to convert the warehouse to apartments. The Supreme Court considered the proper legal standard to be applied when considering an application for a “use variance” under the Philadelphia Zoning Code, as well as the appropriate standard of review for such determinations. The Court held that the minimum variance requirement, as set forth in the Philadelphia Zoning Code, applied to use variances. Additionally, in determining the entitlement to a use variance, the Court concluded considerations of property blight and abandonment were more properly evaluated under the Code’s unnecessary hardship requirement, rather than under the minimum variance requirement. Finally, the Court reaffirmed its traditional abuse of discretion or error of law standard of review with respect to a court’s review of a variance determination; however, as a component thereof, the Court allowed for review for a capricious disregard of the evidence under certain circumstances. View "Metal Green Inc. v. City of Phila, et al." on Justia Law