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Monday, June 12, 2006
Posted 9:15 PM by

Common Cause's pay raise suit tossed by federal judge

U.S. District Judge Yvette tossed Common Cause's federal lawsuit over last year's legislative pay raise, saying the group lacked standing, was in the wrong court and the issue was decided when the Legislature repealed the law in November. The group may appeal.A federal judge has thrown out Common Cause's lawsuit alleging collusion between Pennsylvania's Supreme Court and the Legislature in exchange for last year's now-repealed pay raise.

In a well supported 36-page opinion, that often cited cases limiting federal involvement in state court matters, U.S. Middle District Judge Yvette Kane dismissed the good government group's case without prejudice Monday, saying the repeal "rendered moot plaintiffs' claims calling for the (pay raise) Act to be declared unconstitutional."

As a layman with no direct involvement in the case, other than being a Common Cause member, I could find no fault with Kane's logic.

But lawyers for Common Cause of Pennsylvania found plenty, said Barry Kauffman, the group's executive director.

"We've talked to our attorneys and they feel there's enormous potential for appeal," Kauffman said. "She's clearly misapplied the law."

I'm not so sure.

I can say the judge's unwillingness to take an activist position, despite some pretty clear and convincing evidence of wrongdoing at the state level, has me worried for the future of our Democracy. Especially now that President George Bush has stacked the federal benches with conservative Republicans who share his taste for limiting the scope of judicial opinions.

For instance, at one point Kane cites a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "If a dispute is not a proper case or controversy, the courts have no business deciding it or expounding the law in the course of doing so."

In short, if every 'I' is not dotted and 'T' crossed, a federal court should dismiss a case out of hand. So much for the naive idea that any man can take his case to the Supreme Court in this country without a lawyer - or even a battery of 'em.

The lawsuit Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Democracy Rising's Tim Potts and others filed in October alleged legislative leaders, Gov. Ed Rendell and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph Cappy violated federal and state constitutional rights by secretly negotiating the pay raise law and then pushing it through the state Legislature at 2 a.m. on July 7 without public notice or debate.

The pay hike applied to not only the Legislature, but to all judges in the state and most of the top executive branch officers as well.

"They plainly violated the state Constitution," Potts said, noting provisions within it require three-days of public comment to prevent a bill from being railroaded into law the way the last year's pay raise and 2004's law legalizing slot machines were passed.

"My freedom of political speech was denied and there was no way I could influence this legislation, despite the most diligent of efforts," Potts said.

One by one, though, Kane reviewed the standing of each of the plaintiffs and found each lacked sufficient proof of Constitutional harm to let the case continue.

"The Court has already found that such a generalized claim does not constitute the kind of individual, particularized injury necessary to find standing under Article III (of the Constitution)," Kane wrote. "No matter how sincere or vital to the preservation of an informed electorate, Plaintiff organizations' longstanding interest in the political problems at issue in this case do not operate alone to give them standing to litigate this dispute. Accordingly, the Court cannot find that either organization or association has the requisite standing to bring this action in federal court."

Common Cause had sought an injunction barring the state Supreme Court from ruling on three cases before it involving the pay raise - two from judges who want their pay hikes restored, the third from taxpayer advocate Gene Stilp seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.

They claimed no judge or justice in Pennsylvania could objectively rule on a case affecting their own pay.

However, Kane wrote that the request for an injunction was brought in the wrong court, concluding that "only the United States Supreme Court has such authority.

"Plaintiffs' claim that access to the courts is denied because the state judiciary is incapable of dispassionate review finds no factual or legal support. Although Plaintiffs may prefer a different forum, the doctrine of necessity, long-recognized by Pennsylvania and federal courts, permits the Pennsylvania courts to hear Plaintiffs' claims. The doctrine of necessity provides that a court may decide a case, even though its members have a financial interest, when the claim could not otherwise be reviewed in any court."

Potts said such a ruling puts Pennsylvania citizens in a Catch-22 because, "Any time the Legislature and the court don't want a review, they can make it into a case where a doctrine of necessity applies."

Kane also wrote, "Plaintiffs would have this court interfere with and superintend the future conduct of elected officials of a sovereign state in fulfilling the obligations of their respective offices - before such officials have enacted any legislation or taken any official action."

But Kauffman said, "We never asked the courts to superintend the state court. In this case, improper conversations on legislation led to a violation of due process. We have a right to have our representatives represent our interests. You can't separate the pieces you have to look at them as a whole. Somebody's gotta stand up and say enough is enough."

Kane concluded her written opinion by saying, "For better or worse, the matters of which Plaintiffs complain belong to the political and electoral process. For over two hundred years, our people have trusted these processes to restrain their officials from abusing the power of office and making a mockery of our laws. It is not for this Court to alter the course of history now."

John P. Krill Jr., a lawyer for state Senate Republican leaders David J. Brightbill and Robert C. Jubelirer, told the Associated Press the groups tried "to have the federal courts become superintendent of how the democratic process works in a state government - that is an elitist concept, to resort to the courts when you can't get what you want politically."

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ralph Cappy said the allegations against him and the other defendants were "false and reckless" and called Kane's dismissal of the lawsuit "gratifying."

"In the final analysis, the lawsuit offered no credible supporting evidence nor did its arguments have any sound basis in law," the chief justice said in a statement issued through the court administrator's office.

Potts said he hopes the groups can appeal, but added, "I'm not at all adverse to pushing their recourse to the max at the next election."

Kauffman said the groups can now either ask the judge to reconsider or appeal her decision to the Third Circuit of Appeals in Philadelphia. He plans to meet with officials from Common Cause's national organization and those of other groups before deciding their next move.

He also cautioned reform-minded voters and rank-and-file legislators not to lose heart by the ruling. "The reform movement has been emboldened because they know the public is behind them," Kauffman said. "This may be a temporary speed bump."


To read Judge Yvette Kane's opinion (150 KB pdf), click here.
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