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Oral Arguments

The appeal of a former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge who was ousted for allegedly failing to disclose information about cases in which he was a defendant to a bar association committee reviewing his candidacy will headline the state Supreme Court’s oral argument session that starts today.

Along with hearing arguments regarding whether Thomas M. Nocella engaged in conduct that violated the state constitution and brought the judiciary into disrepute, the justices plan to also hear about eminent domain, the Federal Railroad Safety Act, and whether a police officer’s request for a man’s identification constitutes an “investigative detention.”

The argument session is scheduled to take place today and Wednesday in Philadelphia. The justices are expected to hear a total of 16 cases during the two-day session.

In In re Thomas Nocella, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline ordered Nocella removed from the bench and ordered him ineligible to hold judicial office ever again in Pennsylvania.

The court found that Nocella violated the state constitution in the handling of a case in which he was found in contempt of court while working as a lawyer for a political action committee. The court also found that Nocella violated the state constitution, the governing rules for magisterial district judges and that he brought the judiciary into disrepute for failing to disclose all of the cases in which he was a party when he was being rated by the Philadelphia Bar Association’s ratings arm for judicial candidates.

President Judge Bernard L. McGinley dissented from the order and said he would have suspended Nocella for four months with half-pay and placed him on probation until his retirement.

The Judicial Conduct Board’s Robert Graci said assistant counsel Elizabeth Flaherty argued before the court that Nocella’s election as a judge was void because he misrepresented his qualifications and some voters in Philadelphia could have relied upon that misrepresentation.

Samuel C. Stretton, who represented Nocella, argued that the court has been inconsistent in its outcomes for judges who have gotten in trouble and that other judges have only been suspended for a period of some months, including one magisterial district judge who fixed cases. Stretton is a columnist for the Law Weekly.

According to Stretton, arguments before the high court are expected to focus on whether there was sufficient evidence to find that Nocella brought the office into disrepute. Stretton said he will further argue that, due to its supervisory role, the high court has a broader standard of review, which allows it to review sanctions and then rule on whether they are appropriate.

Eminent Domain

The justices are also expected to hear arguments about the seizure of private property for partial use in a private project in Reading Area Water Authority v. Schuylkill River Greenway Association.

According to the court’s grant of allocatur, the arguments will be limited to whether the Commonwealth Court erred in determining that a water authority can condemn a permanent easement large enough to allow a private developer to build privately owned wastewater and stormwater facilities in a portion of the easement separate from the publicly owned water facilities. Arguments will additionally focus on whether the court erred by finding that facilitating the construction of stormwater facilities to enable development of private land and to manage stormwater constitutes a public purpose, allowing the water authority to condemn the private land.

According to court records, the Reading Area Water Authority condemned a permanent 50-by-133-foot easement across Greenway’s land “to construct, maintain [and] operate utility lines and appurtenance of a water main to be placed under the Schuylkill River for water, sewer and stormwater purposes.”

Greenway objected and contended that the taking was invalid and was purely for the benefit of a private enterprise.

Greenway, court records said, disputed the authority’s ability to condemn land for the installation of sewer and stormwater lines and other improvements related to “privately owned sanitary facilities,” and argued that the condemnation violated Section 204(a) of the Private Property Protection Act, which prohibits taking private property for the use of private enterprise.

The authority contended that the objections should be overruled because the authority had the power to condemn the land, and it argued that providing water and sewer services are inherently public purposes.

Federal Preemption

Whether or not federal law preempts a hotel owner’s suit against SEPTA over flooding allegedly caused by a poorly maintained railroad bridge is also expected to be a topic of argument before the high court.

In Miller v. SEPTA, a split en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed a Montgomery County trial judge’s ruling that the common-law negligence action plaintiff David Miller and I26 Hotel Corp. brought against SEPTA was barred by the Federal Railroad Safety Act. Miller, court records said, alleged that SEPTA failed to properly maintain a nearby stone arch railroad bridge built in 1912, which caused the basement and first floor of his hotel to flood several times.

Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt’s majority opinion said the act allows state law to remain in effect until the U.S. secretary of Transportation adopts a regulation that covers the subject matter of the state law. According to Leavitt, the secretary of Transportation adopted a “Track Safety Standards” regulation, Section 213.33.

In her dissent, however, Judge Patricia A. McCullough argued that Miller’s claim was not preempted because Section 213.33 does not address the issues raised in his complaint.

ID Questions

The high court is expected to close today’s session with arguments on whether an officer’s request for a man’s identification turned the encounter from a “mere encounter” into an “investigative detention.”

According to court records in Commonwealth v. Lyles, one afternoon in July 2009, officers observed Haleem Lyles and another man sitting outside a vacant building in South Philadelphia. According to one of the officers’ testimony, because of the large number of burglaries reported in the area, he approached Lyles and the other man to question them. Lyles told the officer his grandmother lived on the street and the officer, referred to as “Officer Dobbins,” asked him for identification. As Dobbins was taking Lyles’ information down, Lyles reached into his pocket twice over the objection of the officer, who was concerned Lyles was reaching for a concealed weapon. When Dobbins went to frisk the man, he ended up forcibly removing a bag of alleged crack cocaine from Lyles’ hand. The other officer, “Officer Lai,” completed the search and found a bag of a substance believed to be marijuana.

A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge granted a motion to suppress the evidence filed by Lyles, finding no reasonable suspicion existed to request his identification.

The Superior Court reversed, finding the interaction between the men was a “mere encounter” and not an “investigative detention” when Dobbins requested Lyles’ ID.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •