Lawmakers and lawyers in the City of Bridges examined cases that touched on ride share apps, sex offender registry requirements, and residency requirements for police officers, while the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania was a cause for both celebration and further lawsuits.
Federal Judge Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage (and Divorce) in Pennsylvania
On May 20, United States Federal District Judge John E. Jones III struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage, making the state the last in the Northeast to recognize gay marriage. “In future generations, the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage,” Jones wrote in his ruling. “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
Jones’s ruling barred authorities from preventing same-sex couples from getting marriage licenses, and it ensured that couples married in other states would have their marriages recognized by the state. Governor Tom Corbett declined to appeal Jones’s ruling, spurring an appeal filed by Theresa Santai-Gaffney, a court official in Schuylkill County.
In July, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Santai-Gaffney’s appeal, on the grounds that she did not have standing to dispute the ruling. Santai-Gaffney said she planned to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. “We believe Theresa is a proper party, and we believe that intervention is appropriate,” said Randy Wenger of the Independence Law Center, who is serving as Santai-Gaffney’s attorney. “She’s an elected official charged with carrying out the marriage law. Therefore, she has a unique interest in the judicial review of this law. So, this is not the end of the road for us, and it shouldn’t be. The people of Pennsylvania deserve to have adequate review of this law.”
While many couples celebrated Jones’s ruling by filing for marriage licenses, others cheered on the decision for a different reason. Before the ruling, gay couples who had married in other states but resided in Pennsylvania were unable to legally petition for divorce, since the state was not able to grant divorces for marriages it did not recognize. The state of legal limbo meant that some gay couples were still filing taxes as married couples, even years after they had split.
Judges Shut Down Ride-Share Services in Pittsburgh
Ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have spurred protests in London and lawsuits in San Francisco. In June, the conflict about the ride share start-ups spread to Pittsburgh, where two judges issued cease-and-desist orders to both Uber and Lyft. The order came one day before the busy July 4th holiday weekend.
In June, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission filed a petition against the two start-ups, arguing that they should not be able to operate without Certificates of Public Convenience. Judges Mary D. Long and Jeffrey A. Watson agreed with the petition, issuing the cease-and-desist orders to both companies “until they secure the appropriate authority” from the PUC.
“We are disappointed by the PUC’s actions, as Uber has been working in good faith with state officials for months to create modern regulations that will give consumers access to the safest rides on the road,” Uber said in a statement. “Pennsylvania regulators should be standing up for innovation, consumer choice and job growth—not the status quo.”
Even before the judges’ ruling, police in Pittsburgh had been targeting Uber and Lyft drivers in sting operations. Officers would use both applications to appeal for rides, then ask drivers who responded to produce the required license for transporting passengers for hire. If they were unable to do so, the officers would issue a fine.
Ride share services faced similar legal obstacles in Colorado, where the legislature recently passed a law making it legal for them to operate in the state. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hopes that Pennsylvania does the same. “I am confident it is one that I and other supporters of new business models will ultimately win,” he said in a statement. “Technologies like ride sharing evolve with the times, and state regulators must, too.”
Family Sues After Worker Dies in Chevron Fracking Explosion
In February, an explosion at a natural gas well in Dunkard Township, 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, caused a fire that burned for days. The explosion, which regulators called one of the worst oil and gas disasters in the state’s modern history, resulted in the death of 27-year-old subcontractor Ian McKee. In July, the McKee family filed suit against Chevron Appalachia LLC, the company in charge of the well pad that exploded.
McKee’s parents hired the Pittsburgh-based personal injury firm Gismondi & Associates to represent them. “We filed the claim because it enables us a legal right to demand information from Chevron,” attorney John P. Gismondi said. “They have all this information, and they don’t have to release it. This is the only real way we can issue subpoenas, compel a judge, or, you know, compel Chevron to produce information.”After the explosion, Chevron made headlines by mailing an apology letter to local residents. The letter included gift certificates for pizza and soft drinks, a move considered by many to be insensitive. A petition calling for Chevron to apologize garnered more than 12,000 signatures in the weeks following the explosion.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.
Sex Offender Laws Face Challenges
In Allegheny County and across the nation, sex offender laws are facing challenges from petitioners. The Pennsylvania version of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, which was enacted in 2012, expanded the number of offenses that require registration on the federal sex offender list. Certain offenders who had accepted plea deals prior to 2012 found themselves on the sex offender registry thanks to the law’s expansion; some of them are petitioning to have their names removed. But some legal officials argue that the new law is fair, and should be applied to previous offenders as well.
Lawrence Jones was arrested in 2011 for having a sexual relationship with a 15 year-old girl. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he pled no contest to misdemeanor counts of indecent assault and corruption of minors, and was sentenced to two years of probation. But when the state’s new sex offender law went into effect, he learned that he would also be listed on the sex offender registry for 25 years. “I would not have pled [no contest] if I had been told that this was a possibility,” he wrote in his appeal. “I am not guilty and would have gone to trial. I am not receiving the benefit of the [plea] bargain.” Jones’s initial appeal was rejected, and he re-filed his petition with the state Superior Court.
In May, the court decided in his favor. “Neither party to the negotiated plea could have anticipated the imposition of more severe sanctions … than stated on … the record,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Based upon this agreement, Jones sacrificed his fundamental constitutional rights [to a jury trial]. He cannot fairly be denied the benefit of his bargain.”
David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, disagreed with the court’s decision, arguing that fewer than 10 cases involved plea bargains that were specifically designed to avoid having to register under the previous sex offender law. “They perceive this as unfair, and they’re trying to find a way to make this guy not have to register,” Freed told the Post-Gazette. “[But] the law says he should be required to register.” Dozens of similar cases are currently working their way through Pennsylvania courts.
Courts to Decide Whether Police Officers Can Live Outside City
Since 1902, Pittsburgh Police Department officers have been required to live within city limits. But a new state law from 2012 opened up the possibility of relaxing that requirement, something the Fraternal Order of Police support, but many city officials do not.
The 2012 law, the Public Employee Relations Act, says that police officers “may” have to live in the city; the previous iteration of the law said that an officer “shall” be a city resident. According to the Fraternal Order of Police’s attorney, Eric Stoltenberg, this change in language should mean that the residency requirement can be up for debate during the contract bargaining process. The FOP wants officers to be able to live with 25 air miles from downtown Pittsburgh.
But city officials contested this demand, citing a 2013 referendum in which city voters affirmed the residency rule. “Our citizens can dictate certain rules, obligations, requirements for how things can happen around here,” said Assistant City Solicitor Wendy Kobee.
The case was presided over by Judge Robert J. Colville of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. A decision was expected by mid-July.