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Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Cortes

June 11, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge



Four motions are presently before the Court. The first two motions are Plaintiff Pennsylvania Prison Society's Amended Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 82) and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 84) on remand, pursuant to the Judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. See Pa. Prison Soc'y v. Cortes, 508 F.3d 156 (3d Cir. 2007); (Doc. 116). The third and fourth motions presently before the Court are a "Motion to Approve Consent Judgment, Proposed Motion to Intervene" (Doc. 203) and a "Motion to Amend/Correct" the Motion to Approve Consent Judgment (Doc. 207), both filed by Keith Smith and Jackie Lee Thompson.

The Court finds that individual prisoner Plaintiffs Roger Buehl, Vincent Johnson, and Douglas Hollis do not have standing in this action because they have not suffered or shown that they will imminently suffer an injury resulting from the 1997 Amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court also finds that organizational Plaintiffs Fight For Lifers, Graterfriends, Friends Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty do not have standing in this action because these organizations have either ceased to exist or acknowledge that they do not satisfy the requirements necessary for organizational standing. Additionally, the Court adopts the Third Circuit Court of Appeals' finding that Plaintiffs Julia D. Hall, Gregory H. Knight, William Goldsby, Joan Porter, Joan F. Gauker, Kurt Rosenburg and Diana Hollis have produced no evidence that they have an interest in anything more than mere generalized grievances of concerned citizens, and that such general, non-particularized grievances do not satisfy the constitutional imperative for standing. The Court will, accordingly, dismiss each of these Plaintiffs from the current action.

The Court does, however, find that Plaintiff Pennsylvania Prison Society satisfies all of the requirements needed to qualify for the organizational exception to the prohibition on third party standing and may pursue relief on behalf of its members in this case. The Court will, accordingly, reinstate its March 13, 2006 Order (Doc. 91) granting in part and denying in part Plaintiff's and Defendants' motions for summary judgment (Docs. 82 & 84).

Finally, the Court finds that Keith Smith and Jackie Lee Thompson's interests are adequately represented by an original Plaintiff, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and that Smith and Thompson's participation in this case would be superfluous and add unnecessary complexities potentially causing undue delay in this case's resolution. The Court will, accordingly, deny Smith and Thompson's motions relating to intervention (Docs. 203 & 207).

The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a).


This case arises from the Plaintiffs' challenge to amendments made to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, ratified in 1997 (the "1997 Amendments"). In Pennsylvania, prisoners condemned to death or serving sentences of life imprisonment may not be released on parole except when the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommends commutation of a sentence and the Governor approves this recommendation. 61 P.S. § 331.21(a). Prior to 1997, a prisoner seeking a commutation of sentence could obtain a recommendation from the Board of Pardons if a majority of the Board's five members voted in the prisoner's favor. In November of 1997, however, a ballot question proposing to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution was presented to and approved by Pennsylvania voters. Following the 1997 Amendments, a prisoner seeking a commutation of sentence had to receive a unanimous vote of the Board of Pardons for a recommendation to be considered by the Governor. The 1997 Amendments also changed the composition of the Board of Pardons. Prior to the 1997 Amendments, the Board of Pardons consisted of the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, a penologist, a medical professional, and an attorney. After the 1997 Amendments, a crime victim was substituted for the attorney and a corrections officer was substituted for the penologist.

On October 16, 1997, while the 1997 Amendments were still a proposed ballot question, the Plaintiffs filed a petition for review in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, challenging the legality of the ballot question. On November 12, 1997, after the ballot question and the 1997 Amendments had been approved by Pennsylvania voters, Defendants removed the action to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on January 5, 1998. (Doc. 9.) On January 15, 1998, the Court granted a joint motion to remand the state law claims and to stay the federal claims pending resolution of the state law claims. (Doc. 11.) While the Commonwealth Court found for Plaintiffs, Defendants prevailed upon appeal. See Pennsylvania Prison Soc. v. Commonwealth, 727 A.2d 632, 635 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1999), rev'd, 776 A.2d 971 (Pa. 2001).

Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint on July 29, 2002. (Doc. 22.) Plaintiffs alleged that the 1997 Amendments deprive them of a reasonable expectation of the availability and reasonable possibility of executive clemency and thereby violate provisions of the United States Constitution, including: the rights of life prisoners and prisoners under death sentence under the Due Process Clause (Count I); the Ex Post Facto Clause (Count II); the Equal Protection Clause (Count III); Pennsylvania voters' rights under the Due Process Clause (Count IV); the Eighth Amendment (Counts V and VI); and the Guarantee Clause (Count VII). Plaintiffs also brought claims under the Pennsylvania Constitution (Counts VII and VIII).

Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' second amended complaint on August 12, 2002. (Doc. 24.) On March 6, 2003, the Court issued a memorandum opinion granting Defendants' motion in part, and denying Defendants' motion in part. (Doc. 43.) The Court dismissed Counts III, IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, as well as the portion of Count I regarding the due process rights of inmates with life sentences. The Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss the due process claims of inmates under death sentences, as well as Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' claim under the Ex Post Facto Clause.

In a Memorandum and Order dated March 13, 2006 (Doc. 91) responding to the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, this Court ruled in favor of the Defendants as to all claims, but held that the change in voting requirement from majority to unanimity violated the Ex Post Facto clause of the United States Constitution for life-sentenced prisoners. Plaintiffs then filed a motion to Amend or Correct the order (Doc. 93), which the Court denied except to the extent that Plaintiffs were allowed to file a motion for attorneys fees. (June 12, 2006, Mem. & Order, Doc. 98.) On July 11, 2006, Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal (Doc. 103) and Defendants filed a corresponding Notice of Cross Appeal (Doc. 105). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on September 19, 2007 and, on November 5, 2007, vacated that this Court's March 13, 2006 Memorandum and Order, dismissed both appeals without prejudice, and remanded the case to this Court "for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion of [the Third Circuit Court of Appeals] to develop the record in order to determine plaintiffs' standing to bring this action." Pa. Prison Soc'y,508 F.3d at 169; (Doc. 116).

In accordance with the Circuit Court's judgment, this Court initiated a five-month discovery period to develop the record with regard to Plaintiffs' standing, and held an evidentiary hearing on the standing issue over three days in June and August of 2008. (Dec. 11, 2007 Order, Doc. 124; Evidentiary Hearing Transcripts, Docs. 167, 211, 212.) At the initiation of this discovery period, the Plaintiffs requested that the Court permit intervention of new parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24. The Court denied to allow any new parties at that time. (Dec. 11, 2007 Order, Doc. 124.) On December 26, 2007, Plaintiffs submitted a Motion of Reconsideration of the Court's Order denying intervention. (Doc. 125.) The Court denied this motion in an Order dated May 27, 2008. (Doc. 144.)

Following the conclusion of the discovery hearings held in June and August 2008, the parties provided the Court with several filings specifically addressing the issue of standing as identified by the Court of Appeals. On December 22, 2008, Plaintiff Pennsylvania Prison Society filed a "Proposed Findings of Fact" (Doc. 221) and a Brief in Support (Doc. 222) of their Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 80) on remand. On December 23, 2008, Plaintiff Doug Hollis filed a "Brief on the Issue of Standing." (Doc. 223.) On January 21, 2009, the Defendants filed a "Post-Hearing Brief Addressing the Issue of Standing." (Doc. 224.) On January 26, 2009, Defendants also provided a "Proposed Findings of Fact." (Doc. 227.) On February 2, 2009, Plaintiff Doug Hollis filed a "Reply Brief" addressing Defendants' arguments on the issue of standing. (Doc. 228.) And finally, on February 15, 2009, Plaintiff Pennsylvania Prison Society filed a "Reply Brief" regarding the Amended Motion for Summary Judgment on remand. (Doc. 231.) As the parties have developed the factual record through a renewed discovery period and three-day evidentiary hearing, and as both Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment and the underlying issue of standing identified by the Court of Appeals have been thoroughly argued and briefed, the Court believes that the parties' motions for summary judgment are, once again, ripe for disposition.

Additionally, on August 22, 2008, Petitioners Keith Smith and Jackie Lee Thompson, inmates serving terms of life imprisonment, filed a "Motion to Approve Consent Judgment and a Proposed Motion to Intervene." (Doc. 203.) On August 29, 2008, Petitioners Smith and Thompson filed a Motion to "Amend and Correct" their prior motion proposing their intervention into the current matter. (Doc. 207.) The Court received Petitioners' Brief in Support (Doc. 209) of these motions on September 10, 2008, and received Defendants' Brief in Opposition (Doc. 210) on September 19, 2008. Petitioners filed a corresponding Reply Brief on October 3, 2008. (Doc. 215.) As these motions have been completely briefed, and because they implicate the same issues of standing present in the original Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court believes that these two motions are currently ripe for disposition.


I. Standing

The question of standing "is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute or of particular issues." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975). The United States Supreme Court has identified three requirements, derived from Article III of the United States Constitution, that must be met in order for a federal court to adjudicate a particular case.

This "irreducible constitutional minimum" of standing requires: (1) that the plaintiff have suffered an "injury in fact"--an invasion of a judicially cognizable interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) that there be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of--the injury must be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court; and (3) that it be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 167 (1997) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-561 (1992)); accord Pa. Prison Soc'y, 508 F.3d at 160-161. "The case-or-controversy requirement under Article III ensures that 'the Federal Judiciary respects the proper -- and properly limited -- role of the courts in a democratic society.'" Pa. Prison Soc'y, 508 F.3d at 162 (quoting DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332 (2006)). "The standing doctrine serves 'to identify those disputes which are appropriately resolved through the judicial process.'" Id. (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560).

"In addition to the immutable requirements of Article III, 'the federal judiciary has also adhered to a set of prudential principles that bear on the question of standing.'" Bennett, 520 U.S. at 162 (quoting Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 474-475 (1982)) The first of these "prudential" standing requirements holds that "the plaintiff generally must assert his own legal rights and interests, and cannot rest his claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties." Warth, 422 U.S. at 499. The second prudential standing principle identified by the Supreme Court prevents standing "when the asserted harm is a generalized grievance shared in a substantially equal measure by all or a large class of citizens." Id. Finally, the Supreme Court has stated that, in order for a plaintiff to have standing, he or she must allege that "the interest sought to be protected by the complainant is arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute or constitutional guarantee in question." Association of Data Processing Service Orgs. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 153 (1970).

While the first three, constitutional, standing requirements are "immutable" and must be satisfied without exception, the Supreme Court has recognized certain exceptions to the second three, prudential, standing requirements. Of particular relevance to the case currently before the Court, the Supreme Court has recognized an exception to the prohibition on third party standing and has found that organizations and societies have standing based on injuries to their members. Discussing this exception, the Supreme Court stated that: the general prohibition on a litigant's raising another person's legal rights" is a "judicially self-imposed limi[t] on the exercise of federal jurisdiction," not a constitutional mandate. Indeed, the entire doctrine of "representational standing," of which the notion of "associational standing" is only one strand, rests on the premise that in certain circumstances, particular relationships (recognized either by common-law tradition or by statute) are sufficient to rebut the background presumption (in the statutory context, about Congress's intent) that litigants may not assert the rights of absent third parties.

United Food & Commer. Workers Union Local 751 v. Brown Group, 517 U.S. 544, 557 (1996) (quoting Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 751 (1984)) (footnotes omitted). Accordingly, the Supreme Court has stated that "[i]t is clear that an organization whose members are injured may represent those members in a proceeding for judicial review." Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 739 (1972) (citing NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 428 (1963)). Identifying the appropriate test for when an "organizational exception" to the prohibition on third party standing is appropriate, the Supreme Court stated that an association has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members when: (a) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose; and (c) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.

Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Comm'n, 432 U.S. 333, 343 (1977); see accord International Union, United Automobile Workers v. Brock, 477 U.S. 274 (1986); New York State Club Assoc. V. City of New York, 467 U.S. 1 (1988); United Food and Commercial Workers v. Brown Group, 517 U.S. 544 (1996); Pa. Prison Soc'y, 508 F. 3d at 163; Public Interest Research Group v. Powell Duffryn Terminals, 913 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1990).

Mindful of these requirements, the Court now considers the issue of standing with respect to the various categories of plaintiffs in this action.

A. Individual Prisoner Plaintiffs

Three individual prisoner Plaintiffs are participating in the current action. The Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint identified these Plaintiffs as follows:

Plaintiff, Roger Buehl, AM-7936, was, at the time this case was filed, a death-sentenced prisoner convicted and sentenced prior to November 4, 1997. He was among approximately two hundred twenty (220) death sentenced individuals in Pennsylvania who may seek relief through the Pardons Board. Plaintiff Vincent Johnson, AF-3422, SCI-Camp Hill, is a life-sentenced prisoner who was convicted on August 7, 1993, of aggravated robbery and murder in the first degree for a murder committed on or about November 5, 1971. He has filed application[s] with the Board of Pardons on the following dates: April 2, 1991; April 27, 1992; October 24, 1994; and May 23, 1997. His latest application was denied in 1998 by a 2-3 vote.

Plaintiff Douglas Hollis, AF-6355, is a life-sentenced prisoner currently incarcerated at SCI-Coal Township. Prior to the 1997 Amendments, he filed an application to the Board of Pardons and received approval of his commutation by a 4-1 vote of the Board, but was rejected by Governor Robert Casey. He subsequently filed another application to the Pardons Board, which was denied. (Doc. 22 ¶¶ 10-12.)

In its review of this Court's March 13, 2006 Memorandum and Order, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that:

Crucially, the record contains no evidence that any of these prisoner plaintiffs have received or may expect to receive a majority vote (i.e., 3-2 or 4-1) of the Board of Pardons after the 1997 Amendments. Such allegations (on a motion to dismiss) or a showing by affidavit or other evidence (on a motion for summary judgment) of a 3-2 or 4-1 ...

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