Supreme Court Justice-designate Correale F. Stevens is unlikely to participate in a ruling on controversial amendments to the state’s Oil and Gas Act — signed into law as Act 13 — after he’s sworn into office.
Stevens, who was scheduled to take his oath of office today, last week told the Law Weekly he preferred not to speak about any specific case before the Supreme Court but did say he understands that a new justice who did not participate in a case’s oral argument would not be involved in ruling on the matter.
The high court heard oral arguments on the Oil and Gas Act amendments last October.
Governor Tom Corbett nominated Stevens to the Supreme Court in June to fill the spot vacated by former Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who resigned after her conviction on six counts of political corruption.
Some court experts said a 3-3 ruling on Act 13 is likely because three of the Supreme Court justices — Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices Thomas G. Saylor and J. Michael Eakin — are Republicans, while another three — Justices Max Baer, Debra Todd and Seamus P. McCaffery — are Democrats. Stevens is a Republican.
Because Act 13 involves a Republican administration arguing for the rights of oil and gas operators to drill in all zoning districts, some legal watchers believe the case will divide the court along party lines, with the Republicans siding with industry and the Democrats siding with the municipalities.
An evenly split court would leave standing the Commonwealth Court’s July 2012 ruling, which struck down a provision in the law that effectively prevented local governments from enacting zoning ordinances solely to block natural gas drilling by requiring municipalities to adopt uniform zoning ordinances.
At the time of the appellate court ruling, Corbett immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, and the state government followed with a call for an expedited hearing.