THE SUPREME COURT CANDIDATES’ VIEWS ON ARTICLE I, SECTION 27 AND THE ROBINSON TOWNSHIP DECISION
On November 3, the people of Pennsylvania will be asked to elect their newest justices for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. With the plurality decision of Robinson Twp. v. Commonwealth at risk of being altered, the following information is presented to voters to serve as guide on where prospective justices stand. This past spring, the League of Women Voters presented candidates with two questions:
- Do you agree with the plurality opinion’s interpretation of Article 1, Section 27 of the state constitution as stated in the Robinson Township case of December 2013? If not, why not?
- Do you agree that the plain English language meaning of the amendment should be the basis for construing it?
Here are the candidates’ responses to these questions.
Christine Donohue—Pittsburgh, Allegheny Co.
- Education: 1974, East Stroudsburg University, B.A.; 1980, Duquesne University School of Law, J.D.
- Occupation: Superior Court Judge.
- Answer to Questions: In my opinion the Robinson Township plurality’s discussion of the Environmental Rights Amendment is well-researched and based upon a convincing recitation of the historical basis for its passage. Because the analysis is the basis of a three-justice plurality decision and the author and one of the joining justices are no longer on the court on which I hope to serve, it would be improper for me to express my agreement or disagreement with the analysis. This is by definition an open question of the law, which is likely to again be presented to the Supreme Court.
- Question 2: For the reasons stated in my first answer, I do not believe that I can respond to this question. I note, however that it is well established in the law that the “touchstone” of constitutional interpretation is the actual language of the constitution and it must be interpreted in its popular sense. As the Robinson Township plurality opinion explains, the ultimate goal of constitutional interpretation is to determine the intent of the voters who ratified the constitutional provision.
Kevin M. Dougherty—Newtown, Philadelphia, PA
- Education: 1985, Temple University, B.A.;1987, Antioch School of Law, J.D.
- Occupation: Administrative Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Trial Div.
- Answer to Questions: I agree with the plurality opinion’s interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution. I agree with the determination that this legal dispute, in essence, sought vindication of the citizens’ rights to the quality of life on their properties and in their communities, and that insofar as the broadly granted zoning rights to the oil and gas industry attendant to Act 13 threatened the quality of air and water, as well as the health and safety of citizens and the quiet enjoyment of their own private property, the challenged sections of the Act violated the Environmental Rights Amendment.
- Question 2: Yes, the plurality opinion makes clear that the Court employed the plain language of the Amendment as the basis for construing its provisions. The plurality correctly determined that the Amendment granted individual citizens the environmental rights to clean air and pure water, and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. The plurality properly held that the people, including generations to come, hold common ownership of public natural resources, which the state holds in trust. The plurality properly reviewed the legislative history to conclude that the Amendment’s provisions were intended to be broadly applicable.
David Wecht—Pittsburgh, PA Indiana Township
- Education: 1984, Yale University, B.A., summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa; 1987 Yale Law School, J.D.
- Occupation: Judge, Pennsylvania Superior Court (elected January 2011)
- Administrator; Allegheny Register of Wills (1998-2003); Vice Chair, Pennsylvania
- Answer to Questions: I believe that laws are neither static, nor talismanic. While a reasonable jurist must read the text of the amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution plainly and with common sense, I believe that laws, and more specifically judicial interpretation of those laws, must be allowed to evolve within our common law system.
Anne Covey, New Hope, PA—Upper Makefield
- Education: 1984, Widener University School of Law, J.D.; 1981, University of Delaware, B.A.
- Occupation: Judge of the Commonwealth Court
- Answer to Questions: Judges should follow the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions faithfully. The legislative and executive branches enact the laws and judges interpret those laws. I believe we must strike a balance between local control and uniform policy across the state. We must also work for a healthy environment while allowing for investment and job creation. Developing the policies to achieve these aims is the responsibility of the legislative and executive branch, not the judiciary.
- Question 2: I believe in interpreting the law as written and ensuring all amendments are consistent with our fundamental Constitutional rights.
Mike George, Gettysburg, PA—Cumberland Township
- Education: 1981, Washington & Jefferson, B.A.; 1985, Dickinson School of Law, J.D.
- Occupation: President Judge, 51st Judicial District Court of Common Pleas (Adams Co.)
- Answer to Questions: As my interpretation of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution based upon the factual scenario present in the Robinson Township case involves issues which may, in the future, be revisited by the Supreme Court, I believe I am ethically prohibited from direct comment on your specific question. Personally, I am concerned with the language in the plurality opinion’s interpretation which improperly elevates the Court to a legislative and policy making body.
- Question 2: The amendment should be interpreted based upon its actual language as understood by those at the time of adoption.
Judy Olson, Wexford, PA—Franklin Park
- Education: 1979, St. Francis University, B.A. Magna Cum Laude; 1982, Duquesne University School of Law, J.D. (Class Rank-2/91)
- Occupation: Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania
- Answer to Questions: As a sitting judge, I do not believe that it is appropriate for me to comment on whether I agree or disagree with a decision rendered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, especially since there may be future litigation involving the Act at issue.
- Question 2: I believe that a judge must always strictly construe the plain language of constitutional amendments and statutes in interpreting the law.
Hon. Paul P. Panepinto—Philadelphia, PA
- Education: B.A. and M.A. Villanova University 1976; J.D. Widener University School of Law
- Occupation: Judge Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas
- Answers: N/A
All information was gathered from http://www.palwv.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/VOTERS-GUIDE-SPRING-JUDICIAL-WITH-PHOTOS.pdf and http://ballotpedia.org/Paul_P._Panepinto.
 Class of 2016, Widener University Commonwealth Law School.