PennFuture Navigation

Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Act 13 Watch: PUC and DEP File Petition To Get New Justice Involved

As has been reported, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) filed a joint petition last week requesting that the Robinson Township case, which challenges the constitutionality of Act 13, be resubmitted to the full Court so that new Justice Correale Stevens may participate in the  decision. 

When oral argument was heard on October 17, 2012, there were only six justices on the bench as former Justice Joan Orie Melvin was suspended while being prosecuted for public corruption charges. She was eventually convicted.

Governor Corbett appointed Correale Stevens to replace Melvin. He was sworn in last Tuesday, and though the Supreme Court has yet to decide the Robinson Township case, it said that Stevens would not participate in the decision unless he heard oral argument. According to StateImpact, a spokeswoman for the Court indicated that it has rarely ordered re-argument, but that another avenue for Stevens to participate might be for the parties to resubmit briefs. Considering that the Supreme Court said that oral argument was an "integral" part of their decision-making process, it is difficult to understand how resubmitting briefs in an already well-briefed case would, by itself, make a difference in whether Justice Stevens should participate in the decision.

To review, the Commonwealth Court in Robinson Township decided that a provision of Act 13, which mandated municipalities to allow industrial activities in areas not zoned for those activities, unconstitutionally harmed those that depended on that zoning to purchase property in the district, in violation of their substantive due process rights under Art. 1, Sec. 1 of the Pa. Constitution. The Commonwealth Court also declared unconstitutional a separate provision granting DEP the right to waive gas well set-back requirements because the legislature provided no guidance for the executive branch agency to exercise that discretion, in violation of Art 1, Sec. 2 of the Pa. Constitution. In effect, the Court said that the legislature did not properly delegate its authority to the DEP.

While on the Superior Court, Justice Stevens issued no opinions on the constitutional provisions relied on by the majority in Robinson Township to strike down portions of Act 13. He did participate in a handful of decisions that raised substantive due process claims, but those cases were criminal cases that shed little light on his views. For example, Commonwealth v. Gaines involved a claim that substantive due process entitled an individual to have his arrest record expunged, and Commonwealth v. Teeter involved an individual's right to be free from vague and discriminatory sentencing statutes. Both principles are well established, but the claims of the individual defendants were rejected in those cases without much analysis.

During his tenure, Justice Stevens has not issued or joined an opinion that reveals his view of how the courts should use substantive due process to protect an individual's right to life, liberty and, in particular, the right to acquire, own and protect property as guaranteed by Art 1, Sec. 1 of the Pa. Constitution.

No comments:

Post a Comment