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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Courts - Pa. Supreme Court implements constitutional amendments guaranteeing the right "to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment"

I saved this Jan. 6, 2014 story by Steve Esack in the Penn. Leigh Valley Morning Call because I thought the reported decision and the approach might at some point have relevance re constitutional amendments being considered in states outside Pennsylvania... Some quotes from the long story:

HARRISBURG — Environmentalists and municipal officials have been celebrating a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court decision striking down key elements of a 2012 law that eliminated local zoning laws in favor of statewide regulations that allowed energy companies to dig gas wells anywhere they wished.

But the court's Dec. 19 decision invalidating most of Act 13 — a signature piece of Gov. Tom Corbett's jobs and economic policy — was no ordinary zoning ruling to settle a run-of-the-mill lawsuit.

The court's 4-2 majority decision set a landmark constitutional precedent for Pennsylvania.

That precedent — which the Corbett administration now wants the court to reconsider — could have far-reaching legal, policy and political ramifications beyond where wells and drilling equipment can be located.

Now here comes the part that caught my interest:
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ron Castille said Commonwealth Court was correct when it ruled the state could not supersede local zoning laws related to natural gas drilling. But Castille also said Commonwealth Court was wrong to reject a claim by the plaintiffs that Act 13 violated the state Constitution's Vietnam-era amendment guaranteeing Pennsylvanians the right "to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment."

The amendment (Article 1 Section 27) says the commonwealth must guarantee people's environmental rights, Castille wrote. So the governor and Legislature did not have the right to adopt statewide regulations that abolished local drilling-related zoning laws municipalities had created to ensure all property owners can leisurely and financially enjoy their land, Castile wrote.

"The type of constitutional challenge presented today is as unprecedented in Pennsylvania as is the legislation that engendered it," Castille wrote. "The Commonwealth's efforts to minimize the import of this litigation by suggesting it is simply a dispute over public policy voiced by a disappointed minority requires a blindness to the reality here and to Pennsylvania history, including Pennsylvania constitutional history; and, the position ignores the reality that Act 13 has the potential to affect the reserved rights of every citizen of this Commonwealth now, and in the future."

That decision has been criticized as too liberal, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said. But the ruling, issued by Republican Castille and three Democratic justices, was the type of literal constitutional interpretation advanced by conservatives like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Ledewitz said.

"It was a Scalia original," said Ledewitz, a constitional scholar. "Castille made the claim — the people who wrote and adopted this amendment really meant what they said." * * *

That history shows the court's literal interpretation of the environmental rights amendment could affect other aspects of state law, Ledewitz said. It could make passage more difficult for one such bill to loosen the state's decades-old endangered species laws as energy companies and developers want. The decision also could open the state to legal claims it is not doing enough to limit industrial greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

ILB: There is much more in the long story. Here is a link to the 162-page, 4-2 opinion in Robinson Twp. v. The Commonwealth.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 21, 2014 11:13 AM
Posted to Courts in general