It’s a question that comes up often after a new law is challenged under the single-subject rule of the Pennsylvania Constitution: Why combine seemingly unrelated imperatives into one piece of legislation?
And one justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court posed it point blank to an attorney for the Pennsylvania General Assembly last week during oral arguments in Philadelphia, in a case over whether several changes to Megan’s Law — including one criminalizing failing to register as a sex offender — were part of an act that violated the single-subject rule of the state constitution.
The question remained somewhat unresolved.
“Why didn’t they have separate bills?” Justice J. Michael Eakin asked Jonathan F. Bloom of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young. Was it for procedural efficiency?
Bloom, who represented the intervening General Assembly, said he wasn’t there at the time the General Assembly added the Megan’s Law changes to the underlying piece of legislation, 2004′s Act 152, making Megan’s Law nearly 60 percent of the bill. But he assured the high court the legislature took all of the state’s constitutional requirements into consideration.
But the question remained: How do changes to the statute of limitations in certain asbestos cases and procedural modifications to deficiency judgment actions have anything to do with Megan’s Law?
With that, the question of “logrolling” was before the justices.
And Eakin had a new phrase for it: “Christmas tree of legislation,” he called it during last Tuesday’s arguments in Commonwealth v. Neiman.
The state Superior Court has already found the legislation did, in fact, violate the rule, which is found in Article III, Section 3 of the state constitution. However, instead of striking down the entire act, the intermediate appellate court voted to save the Megan’s Law provisions by hacking off the unrelated legislative limbs.
For Jeffrey B. Engle, the attorney for James Howard Neiman, if the Supreme Court were to affirm the severance, it would be acting as a “super legislative body.”
“If a piece of legislation violates the single-subject rule, then it should be stricken as a whole,” Engle told the justices during argument.
A Schuylkill County jury convicted Neiman of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault and several other charges after it found he molested his 10-year-old granddaughter and 7-year-old niece over the course of two years. He appealed a host of issues following the conviction, but the Megan’s Law amendments were the only set of challenges to reach the high court.
Unlike the legislation in Pennsylvanians Against Gambling Expansion Fund v. Commonwealth (PAGE), the 2005 Supreme Court case relied on heavily by the Superior Court in the instant matter, Act 152 did not have a severability clause. Such would allow the court to sever off the unrelated pieces of legislation per the bill itself.
Accordingly, the justices focused on City of Philadelphia v. Commonwealth, in which the justices found a Senate bill making several changes to “municipalities” was overbroad to qualify for single-subject status.
For Douglas J. Taglieri, the assistant district attorney out of the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office, Act 152 squeaked by where the City of Philadelphia bill could not.
Taglieri argued that everything in Act 152 falls under the umbrella of “civil remedies,” an amalgamation he called “a little more precise” than the municipalities the court found too broad in City of Philadelphia.
Taglieri’s aim was to save the Megan’s Law provisions, while Engle argued severance was improper. For Bloom, in representing the legislature, his argument borrowed from each of the case’s chief litigants.
Bloom told the justices the entire piece of legislation was valid and should be upheld by the high court. It was an uphill battle, considering the Superior Court had already done away with everything but the Megan’s Law components.
“You’re doing a good advocate’s job here, but this is a tough thing to explain,” Justice Debra Todd said to Bloom.
Earlier, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery asked him what the connection was between asbestos and Megan’s Law.
As Bloom was crafting argument about the thread that connects the two, McCaffery said: “Somebody sexually abuses a child in a house that has asbestos in it?”
After that exchange, and Eakin’s introduction of his “Christmas tree” phrasing, Bloom argued that severability was simply too subjective to be a viable remedy for the statute.
Bloom asked how the court determines which is the offending provision.
If financial implications were any indicator, the asbestos provisions would prevail, he argued. If page count held muster, Megan’s Law would stay. If the bill’s origins were its driving force, then the deficiency judgment parts would have to carry the act.
Therefore, Bloom argued, when there’s “no indicia of legislative intent,” severance is not appropriate.
Should the court invalidate Megan’s Law, it was unclear what would happen to Neiman, who is serving a 27-to-54-year prison sentence.
Justice Max Baer asked Taglieri how the court should address Neiman’s case if it were to strike down the law.
Taglieri said a remand for resentencing would probably need to take place.