FILE - Pennsylvania Supreme Court chamber room

The Supreme Court Chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol building

In a year where relations between the Pennsylvania Supreme court and the state Legislature are so fraught that some lawmakers have talked openly about impeachment proceedings against justices, the state’s highest court has once again issued a ruling that serves as a rebuke to the legislative branch.

The court issued a ruling Wednesday that Act 80 of 2012 is unconstitutional because of the way it was passed through the two chambers of the Legislature, and on those grounds the justices have vacated its provisions entirely.

Act 80 contained a number of provisions, but the aspect that has gained the most attention was its elimination of a program known as “general assistance,” which was a cash benefit to low-income and disabled residents. About 60,000 people were receiving about $200 a month when the program came to an end.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of three Pennsylvanians who had been receiving general assistance benefits.

Justice Debra Todd, writing for the majority, offered a highly technical explanation of how the Legislature had violated the state constitution when it passed House Bill 1261 in 2012, the legislation that became Act 80. The bill originated as a simple instrument that easily passed the House of Representatives in 2011 to set some definitions relating to public benefits recipients.

When the bill moved to the Senate side, it sat in a committee for 13 months without action, and in the meantime, the entirety of HB1261 was attached to another piece of legislation that passed and was signed into law.

Late in the 2012 session, however, the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committees abruptly took up HB1261, removed its original text entirely, and rewrote it as a completely different piece of legislation. This second version was considered twice in the full Senate – the state constitution requires that each bill be considered three times in each chamber – and then sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It was in Senate Appropriations, when HB1261 picked up yet more amendments, that the provision to remove general assistance was tacked on. Then, this third and final version of the bill was passed in the Senate, concurred upon by the House and signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett.

To the parties bringing the lawsuit against what was then the state Department of Welfare – since renamed the Department of Human Services – this convoluted legislative journey violated Article III, Section 4 of the state constitution, the section that requires a bill be considered on three different days.

“[HB1261 was a] ‘vehicle bill’ used as the fiscal year was rapidly drawing to a close,” they wrote in a legal filing that was quoted in Todd’s decision. “Its sole purpose was to serve as a vehicle to adopt a wide-ranging, controversial legislative agenda. … H.B. 1261 was selected as the bill for these wide-ranging revisions not because it contained germane provisions … but because it had already been passed on three days in the House and on two days in the Senate.”

According to Todd, the state did not dispute the path that HB1261 traveled, but insisted that it was still constitutional anyway.

“DPW acknowledges the myriad amendments to H.B. 1261, but it maintains that the broad purpose and subject of this bill – the interrelated human services programs administered by DPW – remained constant throughout its various iterations, and all of the amendments related to that purpose,” she wrote.

Todd and the majority concluded that because the original text of the bill had been deleted, by definition the later amendments to it could not pass a test of germaneness that would otherwise allow the previous considerations in the House and Senate to be valid.

“Since the original provisions were gone when the new provisions were added by the Senate, it was factually and legally impossible for the new provisions to work together with the deleted provisions to accomplish a single purpose,” Todd wrote. “Indeed, the purpose the original provisions sought to achieve had already been accomplished by other legislative means. We hold that amendments to such enfeebled legislation are not germane as a matter of law.”

As a result, the majority determined that the amended HB1261 was an entirely new piece of legislation and thus was only considered once in each chamber.

Todd was joined by Justices Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty and David Wecht in the majority decision, and Chief Justice Thomas Saylor concurred without signing the decision. Justices Max Baer and Sallie Mundy each issued concurrent opinions, agreeing that Act 80 was unconstitutional but taking issue with certain aspects of the majority decision.

Baer’s concurrence, in particular, echoed many of the concerns heard earlier this year when the Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional district maps as unconstitutional. House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, among others, had accused the court of exceeding its authority and assuming powers reserved for the Legislature.

“By basing its holding of unconstitutionality solely on a violation of Section 4’s ‘three different days’ requirement, I am concerned that the Majority unnecessarily expands this Court’s jurisprudence to infringe upon our General Assembly’s authority to enact legislation,” Baer wrote. “Nevertheless, I fully concur with my colleagues’ analysis of Act 80 failing the germaneness test.”

In the maps case, Saylor, Baer and Mundy, considered the more conservative judges on the seven-member court, had cast dissenting votes in a 4-3 decision. That led to several members of the House of Representatives to draw up impeachment resolutions against the four liberal justices, a step that Saylor at the time decried as violating the separation of powers between the three branches of government.

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.