Like the private citizens before them, elected officials in Harrisburg lack standing to sue the state over Governor Tom Corbett’s amendment to Pennsylvania’s Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania has ruled.
Because the officials — five members of Harrisburg’s politically divided City Council, the city controller and the city’s treasurer — filed the suit without being expressly sanctioned to represent the city, they can’t make claims on the city’s behalf, Jones said.
The plaintiffs in the current suit, Williams v. Corbett, filed their case the month after Jones dismissed an essentially equivalent suit filed by a pastor, a politician and a firefighter in May.
In that case, Jones held that the private citizens lacked standing because any harm from the amendment, which allows the Corbett administration to label a municipality as financially distressed and therefore pave the way for the appointment of a receiver who could implement a recovery plan, would have been felt by the city of Harrisburg, not any individual person.
Although the officials now “purport to bring these claims in their official capacities on behalf of the city of Harrisburg, there is no evidence that they possess the authority to do so,” Jones said. “It is patently evident that [the] City Council simply could not muster a general consensus or resolve to bring suit challenging the Act 47 amendments.”
Jones admonished the plaintiffs for mistakenly taking his opinion in the earlier suit to be an invitation for them to file their own case. He said in a footnote, “Nothing in our Harris opinion supports the plaintiffs’ contention that a handful of members of the City Council, without authority to act on behalf of the council, the mayor, or the city, have standing to maintain this lawsuit. Plaintiffs’ bald assertion that our previous mandate invited the instant challenge constitutes an erroneous extrapolation and misreading of Harris.”
Beyond the officials’ lack of standing, Jones held that they would have been barred by the political subdivision standing doctrine if they had the authority to sue on behalf of the city.
Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1933 opinion in Williams v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, Jones defined that doctrine as holding that a “municipality, ‘created by a state for the better ordering of government, has no privileges or immunities under the federal Constitution which it may invoke in opposition to the will of its creator.’”
Jones moved on to the plaintiffs’ claims that their individual 14th Amendment rights had been violated when the receiver who had been appointed by Corbett filed a mandamus action in July directing the city officials to act in compliance with the recovery plan developed under Act 47 for Harrisburg. It threatened legal action if the officials didn’t comply, according to the opinion.
That particular complaint isn’t properly in front of the court, Jones said, since it was included in the complaint filed in June.
However, he weighed the argument, saying, “This allegation might suffice to establish a concrete injury to the plaintiffs in their official capacities because it asserts harms to the plaintiffs in their roles as officers of the city and forces them to take action in that capacity.” Jones then cited his earlier reasoning in holding that the officials lack standing and noted that they made no argument that would confer standing to them as individuals.
Using sharp language, Jones said that the officials’ complaint lacked sufficient facts to warrant standing.
“Faced with this patently deficient pleading, we are compelled to conclude that plaintiffs lack standing to bring these 14th Amendment claims,” he said.
Finally, regarding the plaintiffs’ claim brought under the state constitution’s “prohibition against ‘special laws,’” Jones chose to abstain from ruling, citing doctrine from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1943 opinion in Burford v. Sun Oil.
Dauphin County, where the city of Harrisburg is located, filed an amicus brief with the court advocating for the Burford doctrine, which favors having district courts decline to rule on matters that could define state law, according to the opinion.
Both factors in Burford‘s test were satisfied in this case, Jones held. First, Pennsylvania’s state courts have available “multiple venues for timely and adequate state law review,” Jones said.
Second, the plaintiffs’ claim clearly involves “‘difficult questions’ of purely state law,” Jones said.
Neither Paul Rossi of Kennett Square, Pa., who represented the plaintiffs, nor Corbett’s press office could be reached for comment.
Devin Chwastyk, of McNees Wallace & Nurick in Harrisburg, represented Dauphin County and said that the court was correct in agreeing with his brief on the Burford holding. “We think that this was the wrong forum,” he said, explaining that the issue is better served as part of a case already in front of the Commonwealth Court.
(Copies of the 18-page opinion in Williams v. Corbett, PICS No. 13-0113, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •