For the Commonwealth Court, 2012 was a year in which "localizing the national" was a fitting theme for the court’s biggest cases.
Unquestionably, the court’s most closely watched work came from Judge Robert Simpson, who handed down two decisions on the state’s controversial voter ID law.
First, in August, Simpson upheld the law at the preliminary injunction stage, saying it was constitutionally valid on its face and that it is valid under a standard of review that is more deferential to state legislators.
But Simpson would find the matter back in his hands soon again, after the state Supreme Court, in the words chosen by a dissenting justice, "punted" the issue back to the jurist in September.
This time, the task was clearer — to establish if the Republican-sponsored law would disenfranchise voters for the 2012 election and block it if it did.
Blocking the law for this past election, Simpson said: "I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for the purposes of the upcoming election."
A Court Divided
While the voter ID case only fell before one jurist, a common thread among the majority of other key holdings in 2012 was that those rulings came through divided, and often deeply divided, en banc panels of the court.
Robinson Township v. Commonwealth was no exception. In that case, a deeply split en banc panel of the court invalidated amendments to the state’s Oil and Gas Act that would require municipalities to adopt uniform zoning ordinances allowing drilling in all zoning districts.
Led by Dan Pellegrini, who took over as the court’s president judge this year, the 4-3 court ruled the amendments were unconstitutional.
In so holding, the court overturned Section 3304 of 58 Pa.C.S., known as Act 13 of 2012, reasoning that requiring municipalities to bring their zoning ordinances into compliance with Act 13 would mean forcing local governments to violate substantive due process by allowing incompatible uses in their districts.
The case had been argued before, but not decided by, the state Supreme Court as of press time. Also in 2012: Calling a person a terrorist is not per se defamatory, the abolishment of jury commissioners in the state does not violate the separation of powers doctrine, and, for what appeared to be the first time in the state’s history, a judge of the court denied the Pennsylvania Insurance Department’s request to liquidate two insurers.
The Commonwealth Court has been an appellate testing ground for the state’s relatively fledgling Right-to-Know Law, whose scope has been shaped by the court’s jurists since its 2008 inception.
And this year’s biggest RTKL decision will likely be next year’s.
Why? In August, the court made the decision to grant reargument in Office of the Governor v. Scolforo — a case over whether portions of Governor Tom Corbett’s calendars that were redacted before being made public were exempt from disclosure under the law’s exception for records that reflect "predecisional deliberations."
A deeply divided en banc panel of the court had ruled back in June to direct the state’s Office of Open Records to conduct an in camera review to determine whether portions of Corbett’s calendars were exempt.
In between the ruling ordering the OOR to conduct an in camera review and its grant of reconsideration, the court in a separate matter — again deeply divided and sitting en banc — ruled that the calendars for Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the 17 members of City Council are exempt under the RTKL.
Also of note in the RTKL sphere, the court decided that emails on government computers are not necessarily public records while deciding in a separate case that emails between council members are public record. The court also allowed a set of plaintiffs to obtain records under the RTKL that they were denied in federal court because the discovery deadline had passed, begging the question of whether the law provides litigants a second bite at the discovery apple in City of Allentown v. Brenan.
Two recent rulings out of the Commonwealth Court, both 5-2 splits in favor of the employer, stemmed from a line of facts where the employer acted adversely despite the worker’s assertion his employer was missing a key qualification.
The court disagreed both times.
First, more recently, the court decided in Grand Sport Auto Body v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review that a man’s history of tardiness and missing work were enough to show willful misconduct, thus denying the man unemployment benefits despite the fact that his final absence — the one that got him fired — was found to have been a justified one.
In other words, it seems, a history of willful misconduct may be shown even when a termination stems from an event that does not amount to willful misconduct.
In another recent decision, Krushauskas v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (General Motors), a divided en banc panel allowed General Motors to unilaterally suspend an injured worker’s benefits without the required paperwork because the man had taken a voluntary retirement package.
In Imani Christian Academy v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the court ruled that a religious school is not exempt from paying unemployment compensation benefits.
In the case of Bosch v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the court said a workers’ compensation settlement blocked a claim for unemployment benefits, a holding that possibly serves as a warning to unemployment compensation claimants and their attorneys about the language that goes into workers’ compensation settlement agreements.
Other Key Holdings
In an attempt to clarify an issue on which the state Charter School Law is silent, a divided en banc panel of the court decided in Northside Urban Pathways Charter School v. State Charter School Appeal Board that schools may seek to amend their charters. Further, the state Charter School Appeal Board has jurisdiction over appeals from decisions regarding proposed amendments.
Another split en banc panel raised the evidentiary standard for the state Department of Public Welfare to maintain information from certain child-abuse reports on its ChildLine and Abuse Registry, a ruling that the director of one child advocacy group said suggested "the court doesn’t understand the phenomenon of child abuse."
In a 5-2 decision in G.V. v. Department of Public Welfare, the majority, led by Judge Anne E. Covey, found that while CYS agencies are bound by the "substantial evidence" standard when issuing an indicated child-abuse report, the DPW must adhere to the stricter "clear and convincing evidence" standard when deciding whether to maintain a summary of such a report on its ChildLine registry.
The issue has been a hot-button one in light of two high-profile sex-abuse prosecutions in Pennsylvania, one against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the other against two priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Though many of the court’s more impactful majority rulings were met with dissenting or concurring opinions, the court unanimously upheld the dismissal of Pennsylvania’s $150 million lawsuit against Janssen Pharmaceuticals, in which the state alleged the company fraudulently misrepresented the efficacy of Risperdal over cheaper generic versions of the anti-psychotic drug.