Legislature Ready to Undermine the Supreme Court

The Pennsylvania House has once again put on display its utter contempt for the rule of law by passing a bill that would overrule orders from the courts including an order of the Supreme Court that upholds the state Constitution. Amazingly, the House passed a bill that allows county leaders to decide whether they will obey court orders to update property assessments.

One can only hope the Governor will veto this threat to the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution. One must wonder if the members of the Legislature who have sponsored this monstrosity have considered the oath they have taken in which they swear to obey, protect, and defend the constitutions of the United States and Pennsylvania. Those constitutions empower the Supreme Courts to decide on constitutionality of laws written by the legislature and actions brought before it through lawsuits. When the Legislature decides to enact legislation that directly contravenes a Supreme Court decision based on the Constitution we have the making of a crisis in governance.

Assuming the Senate also passes the bill, and the Governor signs it, the bill will face an almost immediate challenge in the courts and will certainly be ruled unconstitutional. At that point, how does it get to be enforced? Will the Legislature write another law saying it is alright to ignore the new court rulings? Or will the county leaders go merrily on their way ignoring the court orders to reassess? If the courts acquiesce and yield to this assault on their power, they will have effectively neutered themselves as the citizens’ best hope for protection of liberty and property and relinquished those powers to a Legislature, which, by virtue of passing court crippling legislation, has shown itself to be unfettered by the Constitution or its oath to obey and defend the Constitution. This bill and its probable aftermath will make Pennsylvania the laughing stock of the nation.

The asininity of the situation is more clearly seen in the fact that the Legislature has had years to write assessment laws that would conform to and show for respect for the Constitution House members have sworn to obey. In their fear of property owners whose properties are grotesquely under assessed they have chosen not to risk the ire of those voters by passing needed reforms that would bring Pennsylvania into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century. In so doing they have allowed horrendous inequities to develop in property assessments for which only the courts can offer a remedy to property owners forced to pay far more than their fair share of taxes.

Now the courts come with orders to fix the problem as mandated by the Constitution’s requirement of uniformity of taxation and the Legislature has chosen to attempt to block the only avenue open to taxpayers seeking correction of illegal and inequitable treatment.

If the Legislature wishes to do something that shows their true colors and would be helpful to their cause, it could pass an amendment to the Constitution that removes the uniformity clause. Or if they cannot muster the political courage to do that they could pass an amendment forbidding the taxation of property.

But they will do neither. It is easier to pass bills that flout the Constitution and the rule of law. Better to stay in good stead with those getting enormous and illegal advantages in their tax bills than to deal with the problem of their own making through the years of unwillingness to tackle what has been staring them in the face. We are witnessing self-government at its most feeble.

Fitzgerald: Emperor Wannabe or Ignorant of How Separation of Power Works

In his latest rhetorical foray into governmental theory and structure, Allegheny County’s Executive dismisses the role of the judiciary and attempts to arrogate unto himself and Council exclusive rights to determine how much property owners will pay in taxes and on what basis those taxes will be determined. This most recent denigration of the courts, the Constitution and the rule of law was prompted by Judge Wettick’s decree that the County manager and three other County officials complete the reassessment as previously ordered or face contempt charges.

Interestingly, the Judge opted not to cite the Executive for contempt after his defiance of the court’s orders last week. The ploy to put the threat of fines or jail on the Executives underlings can be viewed as a brilliant tactic in one sense and limp wristed in another.

By threatening to jail employees if they follow the Executive’s order not to comply with the Judge’s decree, he has put the burden of bearing punishment on people other than the Executive thereby placing the decision of whether they are punished in the hands of the Executive. Thus, the Executive must decide if he believes holding up the court ordered reassessment is worth having employees go to jail. Or he might choose to fire all the people the Judge has ordered to finish the job and not replace them-delaying the work for quite some time.

At the same time, removing the threat of punishment from the Executive takes away any fantasy the Executive might have had about being a martyr for the cause of frozen, never-to-be-changed assessments. On the other hand, it can be argued that authority and accountability reside in the Executive and it is he who should bear the consequences of his court defying behavior. As such, does the Judge’s decision to excuse the Executive reflect excessive deference and therefore bodes ill for the process going forward?

The language of the Executive in response to the Judge’s decree is telling. He told reporters the Judge was trying to run the County by judicial fiat and had overreached his authority.

Clearly, these comments are indicative of someone who is frantically trying to rationalize his own flawed position or who has completely forgotten-or never knew-about the role of the three branches of government. His attitude ignores reality. First of all, the County is a creature of the state and is therefore subordinate to its Constitution and laws. He might have guessed at that possibility when he recently took an oath to obey and defend the Constitution and the state’s laws, which includes by extension orders from the judiciary, especially those from the Supreme Court. Thus, the County Executive and County Council are not free to behave in any way they wish simply because the people of the County elected them. This is something the Executive should have learned as a member of Council when several Council passed bills were struck down by the courts.

But a number of recent pronouncements by the Executive regarding the courts and the reassessment order point to a belief that there are some laws and court orders the County has no obligation to obey and is within its rights to ignore. That level of disrespect for the Constitution and the judiciary if not checked can only encourage the populace to treat the rule of law with increasing disdain. The rule of law is the bedrock upon which a free society exists. Undermining the rule of law is tantamount to promoting anarchy.

If laws or constitutions need to be changed for whatever reason, there are prescribed, legal mechanisms in place to do that. But open defiance of the law by elected officials is a toxin in the body politic and must not be tolerated.