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OBIE SNIDER ET AL. v. MILTON J. SHAPP (08/31/79)

decided: August 31, 1979.

OBIE SNIDER ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
MILTON J. SHAPP, GOVERNOR OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA ET AL., RESPONDENTS



Original jurisdiction in case of Obie Snider, Fred L. Hoffman, and Barbara V. Barker v. Milton J. Shapp, Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Robert E. Casey, Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Al Benedict, Auditor General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Barton A. Fields, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Centre County Board of Elections, the Bedford County Board of Elections, York County Board of Elections; and John Glatz, John T. Saylor, Grover Spearley, Alva Hostetler, Stanley Bollman, I. Stanley Claycomb and Carroll H. Leppo, Robert L. Bowers and William C. McKinley, Jr., as members of the Centre, Bedford and York County Boards of Elections.

COUNSEL

Michael I. Levin, with him William Fearen, and Cleckner & Fearen, for petitioners.

Robert B. Hoffman, Deputy Attorney General, with him Norman J. Watkins, Deputy Attorney General, for respondents.

Bruce A. Rosenfield, with him, of counsel, Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, for amicus curiae, Common Cause.

President Judge Bowman and Judges Crumlish, Jr., Wilkinson, Jr., Mencer, Rogers, Craig and MacPhail. Judges Blatt and DiSalle did not participate. Opinion by Judge Wilkinson, Jr. Dissenting Opinion by Judge MacPhail. Dissenting Opinion by Judge Mencer.

Author: Wilkinson

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 340]

On October 4, 1978, the Governor signed into law what is popularly known as the "Public Officials Ethics Law" (herein simply the Ethics Law or Act)*fn1 proscribing certain conduct involving conflicts of interest and to that end requiring that candidates for public office, elected officials and certain appointed officials file financial disclosure statements with a State Ethics Commission (hereafter the Commission) created to implement and administer the Act.

Petitioners, elected members of three school districts in the Commonwealth, have filed a class action

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 341]

    in this Court's original jurisdiction against the Governor, Treasurer, Auditor General, Attorney General, the Commission and its members individually, and the county boards of election and district attorneys as a class seeking injunctive and declaratory relief against implementation of the Act alleging the Act violates various provisions of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. Following the filing of an amended petition for review,*fn2 respondents have filed preliminary objections presently before this Court. The Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General and the Commission have lodged a petition raising the question of this Court's jurisdiction and preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer. The Auditor General has filed separate preliminary objections relating to petitioners' claims against him.*fn3 For the reasons set forth we will sustain the preliminary objections of the Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General and the Commission.

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 342]

Petitioners Snider and Hoffman aver that each is an elected public official subject to the provisions of the Act, either as a candidate seeking re-election in the general election or as an incumbent school director and each avers that he will resign rather than comply with the disclosure provisions of the Act. Petitioner Barker avers that compliance with the financial disclosure provisions of the Act is against her husband's wishes and will cause severe harm to her marriage. Petitioners allege the Act on its face violates Article I, Sections 5 and 8, Article III, Section 28 and Article IV, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Petitioners also allege the implementation of various provisions of the Ethics Law will cause irreparable damage and injury to them in that it will cause an expenditure of tax money for an unlawful purpose and will cause an improper and unwarranted interference with petitioners' "right to run and serve as school directors." The amended petition for review further includes a count in quo warrantor requesting that the three individual members of the Commission appointed by the Governor be removed from office.

The stated purpose of the Ethics Law is to "strengthen the faith and confidence of the people of the State in their government" and to assure the people that "the financial interests of holders of or candidates for public office present neither a conflict nor the appearance of a conflict with the public trust."*fn4 The Act then prohibits eight categories of conduct,*fn5

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 343]

    requires the filing of annual financial statements by public officials, candidates and certain public employees,*fn6

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 344]

    establishes an independent, nonpartisan Ethics

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 345]

Commission*fn7 and provides for civil and criminal penalties for violations of the restricted activities provision and the disclosure requirements.*fn8

We will consider the respondents' preliminary objections to the constitutional challenges posed regarding these provisions of the Act seriatim.

I. The Vagueness Challenge

Petitioners have sought injunctive and declaratory relief alleging that the Act is so vague and indefinite in the terms it employs to define a crime that enforcement would constitute a violation of the due process

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 346]

    clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Respondents initially question whether an action for declaratory judgment is appropriate in this case and secondly whether petitioners have standing to challenge these provisions. In particular, respondents argue that no justiciable controversy and no antagonistic claims indicating imminent and inevitable litigation are present in this case.

The stated purpose of the Declaratory Judgments Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 7531 et seq. is to settle and afford relief to any person from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to right, status and legal relations affected by a statute. We believe sufficient uncertainty exists with respect to the facial validity of these provisions of the Ethics Law to meet the threshold jurisdictional requirements of the Declaratory Judgments Act. Further, we find that petitioners and the class of school directors they represent are sufficiently affected by the provisions of the Act to provide standing to challenge its validity on vagueness grounds. See Singer v. Sheppard, 33 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 276, 381 A.2d 1007 (1978).

In this context, however, we must note that a statute challenged on vagueness grounds is presumed to be constitutional and will not be declared otherwise unless it clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Constitutions of this Commonwealth or the United States. Singer v. Sheppard, 464 Pa. 387, 346 A.2d 897 (1975). The allegations of petitioners in this regard are necessarily limited to the facial invalidity of the Act, since petitioners' averments contain no facts indicating enforcement of the provisions against petitioners or that any of the petitioners are engaged in conduct arguably within the proscription of the Act. In this posture, we must conclude that petitioners have failed to sustain their burden in this regard.

[ 45 Pa. Commw. Page 347]

The sole support underpinning petitioners' vagueness challenge is a reference to an opinion of the Attorney General which attempted to interpret various provisions of the Act. To find this Act unconstitutional on such a thin reed would in our judgment amount to construing a statute in a vacuum. Further, an examination of Section 3 of the Act, 65 P.S. § 403 containing activities restricted by the Ethics Law leads us to conclude that the section is neither so vague nor inconsistent on its face as to deny due process. While the applicability of Section 3 to particular factual situations must necessarily await regulations and opinions of the Commission, the conduct proscribed by Section 3 is in our ...


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