IN THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA WESTERN DISTRICT
December 16, 2011
JAMES C. CLIFTON, CHARLES AND LORRIE CRANOR, HUSBAND AND WIFE, AND ROY SIMMONS AND MARY LISA MEIER, HUSBAND AND WIFE
ALLEGHENY COUNTY KENNETH PIERCE AND STEPHANIE BEECHAUM
ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, DANIEL ONORATO, ITS CHIEF EXECUTIVE AND DEBORAH BUNN, ITS CHIEF ASSESSMENT OFFICER PETITION OF: ALLEGHENY COUNTY COUNCIL
AND NOW, this 16th day of December, 2011, the Application for Extraordinary Relief and Application for Relief are DENIED.
Mr. Justice Baer files a Dissenting Statement.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA WESTERN DISTRICT
JAMES C. CLIFTON, CHARLES AND LORRIE CRANOR, HUSBAND AND WIFE, AND ROY SIMMONS AND MARY LISA MEIER, HUSBAND AND WIFE v. ALLEGHENY COUNTY, KENNETH PIERCE AND STEPHANIE BEECHAUM v. ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, DANIEL ONORATO, ITS CHIEF EXECUTIVE AND DEBORAH BUNN, ITS CHIEF ASSESSMENT OFFICER PETITION OF: ALLEGHENY COUNTY COUNCIL
No. 20 WM 2011
Application for Exercise of Extraordinary Jurisdiction or King's Bench Jurisdiction
MR. JUSTICE BAER
Once again, this Court confronts the uncertainty surrounding the Allegheny County's ("County) real property assessment system, which, in April of 2009, a majority of this Court declared unconstitutional as applied, directing the trial court to set a timeframe for the County's completion of yet another countywide reassessment. Clifton v. Allegheny County, 969 A.2d 1197 (Pa. 2009) (Clifton I). Shortly after entry of that decision, the County sought a 180-day stay to allow the General Assembly the opportunity to consider the enactment of legislation amending the property assessment laws to define constitutional standards consistent with the Clifton I decision. This Court denied the stay, and the property reassessment in Allegheny County has proceeded pursuant to the schedule established by the trial court. See Clifton v. Allegheny County, 980 A.2d 27 (Pa. 2009) (Clifton II). Allegheny County Council ("County Council") has now filed an application seeking this Court's exercise of its extraordinary jurisdiction, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 726, or King's Bench jurisdiction, see PA. CONST. ART. V, § 10(a), requesting, again, a delay in the assessment process and the establishment of a property reassessment scheme that would enable Allegheny County, as well as counties across the Commonwealth, to determine, without litigation, whether their assessments conform to the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, PA.
CONST. art VII, § 1.
In my concurring opinion in Clifton I, although I agreed with the Court that the assessment laws as applied in the County resulted in unconstitutional inequality, I urged that we set forth substantive criteria for measuring such inequality to resolve the ongoing uncertainty among the Commonwealth's taxing authorities and property owners alike resulting from the absence of legislative direction. Clifton I, 969 A.2d at 1231 (Baer, J. concurring). I acknowledged that the legislature is the optimum branch of government to fashion a comprehensive constitutional scheme, but also recognized that the prospect of prompt legislative action was unlikely. I relied on, inter alia, Commonwealth v. Miller, 888 A.2d 624 (Pa. 2005), in which this Court defined mental retardation pursuant to a directive from the United States Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), after the General Assembly failed to formulate a standard.
In response, the Majority derided my skepticism regarding the likelihood of legislative action and argued that although "there may very well come a time when this Court will be obliged to fill a legislative void in this area," Clifton I, 969 A.2d at 1229, n.44, we should exercise judicial restraint by giving the legislature the time to act in response to the Clifton I opinion. Id. In support of this contention, the Majority observed that in Miller, more than three years had passed since the United States Supreme Court announced in Atkins that each state was to set standards and procedures for adjudicating mental-retardation in capital cases and the General Assembly had failed to pass legislation to accomplish this task.
I also was unable to agree with the Court when it denied the County's subsequent and discreet request for a six-month stay to allow the General Assembly time to act in response to Clifton I. I viewed the County's application as an opportunity to provide the legislature a relatively brief period to "fashion a more comprehensive and soundly constitutional scheme," and reasoned that allowing the legislature this opportunity prior to an additional reassessment in the County could prevent substantial costs to the County and confusion to taxing authorities and taxpayers. See Clifton II, 980 A.2d at 27 (Baer, J., dissenting) (quoting Clifton I, 969 A.2d at 1229). It is also noteworthy that a grant of the requested stay would have provided the legislature with some of the time this Court noted had passed in the Miller scenario between when the legislature had the opportunity to first define mental-retardation and when this Court acted to provide defendants and the Commonwealth with an appropriate definition.
Now, two years and seven months after Clifton, the General Assembly has failed to enact legislation that will define compliance with the constitutional standards announced in that case, and there is no indication of legislation on the horizon. This case is now aligned with the factual matrix in Miller, and, as we filled the legislative void concerning what constitutes mental-retardation preventing imposition of the death penalty in that case, we should now fill the legislative void concerning the demarcation between constitutionality and unconstitutionality for purposes of Pennsylvania's Uniformity Clause in real property reassessment cases. See Clifton I, 969 A.2d at 1231 (Baer, J., concurring) (citing Miller, 888 A.2d 624).
Accordingly, I dissent from denial of the County Council's application. The County has likely spent millions of dollars shooting at the proverbial moving target because of the legislature's and this Court's failure to define specifically the County's obligations. The trial court in the instant action has done a commendable job of attempting to define the limits of the constitution. Nevertheless, every county in Pennsylvania might well eventually be called upon to do the same, and might draw the line differently. Assuming continued legislative inaction, at some juncture, this Court will be compelled to define the constitutional standards, just as we did in Miller. I believe for the benefit of all, the time to do that is now.
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