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Commonwealth v. Taylor

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

November 6, 2019


          Submitted: March 11, 2019

          Appeal from the Order dated May 23, 2018 in the Court of Common Pleas, York County, Criminal Division at No. CP-67-CR-0001762-1991.



          WECHT JUSTICE.

         On December 8, 2014, Paul Gamboa Taylor filed his fourth petition pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA")[1] seeking a new appeal to this Court from the denial of his third PCRA petition. The PCRA court dismissed the fourth petition, holding that the court lacked the authority to grant the relief that Taylor sought. The PCRA court did, in fact, have the authority to grant the requested relief, if warranted on the merits of Taylor's claim. Accordingly, we would reverse the order of the PCRA court and would remand for further proceedings.

         On May 20, 1991, Taylor was arrested and charged with five counts of first-degree murder. On December 19, 1991, Taylor pleaded guilty to five counts of homicide generally. Following a degree-of-guilt hearing on January 10, 1992, the trial court found Taylor guilty of first-degree murder on all five counts. That same day, the trial court proceeded to a sentencing hearing, at which the trial court sentenced Taylor to four death sentences on four counts of first-degree murder and a life without parole sentence on the fifth count. On January 23, 1992, the trial court formally imposed the sentences. This Court affirmed Taylor's judgment of sentence on direct appeal. Commonwealth v. Taylor, 634 A.2d 1106 (Pa. 1993) (Taylor I).

         Taylor sought relief under the PCRA. The PCRA court denied relief, and this Court affirmed. Commonwealth v. Taylor, 718 A.2d 743 (Pa. 1998) (Taylor II). In February 1999, Taylor filed a second PCRA petition. Once again, the PCRA court denied relief, and this Court affirmed. Commonwealth v. Taylor, 753 A.2d 780 (Pa. 2000) (Taylor III).

         In 2008, Taylor filed a third PCRA petition, in which he alleged that trial counsel had a conflict of interest. The Commonwealth was represented by the Office of Attorney General ("OAG"). The PCRA court denied relief on jurisdictional grounds. This Court affirmed. Commonwealth v. Taylor, 67 A.3d 1245 (Pa. 2013) (Taylor IV).

         On December 8, 2014, Taylor filed the present PCRA petition, his fourth. Taylor asserted that news articles began to emerge in the fall of 2014 regarding former Attorney General Kathleen Kane's discovery of inappropriate emails on OAG servers that had been exchanged between employees of the OAG and the judiciary. On October 2, 2014, news accounts revealed that pornographic email chains included former Justice Seamus McCaffery and employees of the OAG. See Karen Langley, High Court Justice Sent Emails with Explicit Content, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Oct. 2, 2014; PCRA Petition, 12/8/2014, at Ex. A. According to Taylor, beginning on October 8, 2014, news accounts reported that the emails between Justice McCaffery and employees of the OAG were not limited to pornographic emails, but also included thousands more emails of an undisclosed nature between the Justice and OAG employees. News accounts also revealed that hundreds more emails were exchanged between members of the Supreme Court and OAG staff. See Brad Bumsted & Adam Brandolph, Castille Expects Emails' Delivery, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Oct. 8, 2014; PCRA Petition, 12/8/2014, at Ex. A; Brad Bumsted, Castille Clears All Justices but McCaffery in Porn Scandal, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, October 16, 2014; PCRA Petition, 12/8/2014, at Ex. A.

         In his fourth PCRA petition, Taylor relied upon this email scandal to argue that he did not receive the "impartial and disinterested tribunal" that due process requires. See Marshall v. Jerrico, Inc., 446 U.S. 238, 242 (1980). Taylor alleged that the impartiality of this Court was called into question by the number and content of emails exchanged between employees of the OAG and Justices of the Supreme Court at the time that Taylor IV was pending. Taylor asserted that these emails included, and demonstrated an apparent tolerance for, misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and insensitivity to domestic violence, all in the guise of humor. Taylor claimed that, because he is of Hispanic and African-American descent, the emails demonstrated that former Justice McCaffery was biased against him. Additionally, according to Taylor, "[t]he disclosures reveal a virtual torrent of communications between the court deciding [Taylor's] fate and his party-opponent, the Attorney General's Office, during the pendency of his appeal, many of which have been found to be improper." PCRA Petition, 12/8/2014, 11-12. Taylor further alleged that two members of the OAG who represented the Commonwealth during the appeal in Taylor IV were named in news reports as having been engaged in communications with Justice McCaffery that included pornographic content.

         Taylor acknowledged that his fourth PCRA petition facially was untimely. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(1) ("Any petition under this subchapter, including a second or subsequent petition, shall be filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final . . . ."). Taylor relied upon two exceptions to this time bar: Subsection 9545(b)(1)(i) (requiring the petitioner to allege and prove that "the failure to raise the claim previously was the result of interference by government officials with the presentation of the claim in violation of the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States"), and Subsection 9545(b)(1)(ii) (requiring the petitioner to allege and prove that "the facts upon which the claim is predicated were unknown to the petitioner and could not have been ascertained by the exercise of due diligence"). In 2014, both exceptions required the petitioner to file the petition invoking these exceptions within sixty days of the date the claim first could have been presented. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b)(2) (2014).[2]

         Taylor filed the petition on December 8, 2014. According to Taylor, this was within sixty days of October 8, 2014, and October 16, 2014, when the first news accounts revealed that communications were not limited to pornographic images sent by Justice McCaffery, but included thousands of emails from Justice McCaffery to members of the OAG. Taylor requested the PCRA court to remedy this alleged due process violation (i.e., Justice McCaffery's participation in his appeal while exhibiting bias) by ordering a new appeal to the Supreme Court from the denial of relief on his third PCRA petition.

         Shortly thereafter, on December 15, 2014, Taylor filed a motion to disqualify the OAG from representing the Commonwealth and a motion seeking discovery from the Commonwealth. The discovery motion asked that the Commonwealth be compelled to produce: "[c]opies of any and all emails, including attachments, exchanged between any employee of the [OAG] and any sitting or former member of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania between the dates of April 8, 2009 and May 29, 2013, regardless of whom was the sender or recipient." Motion for Discovery, 12/15/2014, at 7.

         While discovery was ongoing, media outlets began to report that Justice J. Michael Eakin also was involved in exchanges of inappropriate emails with OAG employees. On December 19, 2016, the Commonwealth filed responses to Taylor's disqualification and discovery motions. The Commonwealth supplied Taylor and the PCRA court with a copy of a Report prepared by Special Deputy Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, entitled "Misuse of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Government Email Communication System" (the "Gansler Report"), that was released to the public on November 22, 2016. This report was the culmination of a lengthy independent review of emails sent to and from the OAG and Supreme Court Justices between August 2008 and December 2015. On February 17, 2017, and March 2, 2017, the Commonwealth supplemented its filings.

         On July 12, 2017, the PCRA court ordered a status conference: to identify the issues that Taylor was pursuing; to address whether additional discovery was warranted; to examine whether and how Taylor was prejudiced by email communications between Supreme Court Justices and the OAG; and to consider the authority of the PCRA court to award a new PCRA appeal to the Supreme Court. Prior to the status conference, on April 20, 2018, Taylor requested the appointment of a special master to assist in reviewing the 6.4 million emails that he believed were in the OAG's possession.

         At the April 26, 2018 status conference, counsel for Taylor affirmed that Taylor was seeking relief for an alleged due process violation resulting from email communications between the OAG and former Justices McCaffery and Eakin.[3] Because the validity of this due process claim depended upon fact-finding, counsel requested a hearing. Counsel further affirmed that the appropriate relief for this claim would be a new appeal from the PCRA court's denial of relief on Taylor's third PCRA petition.

         Shortly after the status conference, on May 1, 2018, the PCRA court issued a notice of intent to dismiss the petition. See Pa.R.Crim.P. 909. Even assuming that there was a factual basis to support Taylor's requested relief, the PCRA court believed that it had no authority to direct the Supreme Court to permit another appeal in connection with Taylor's third PCRA petition.

         On May 21, 2018, Taylor filed a response and objection to the notice of intent to dismiss, and sought permission to amend his PCRA petition to provide the PCRA court with information pertaining to emails exchanged between Justice Eakin and members of the OAG. On May 23, 2018, the PCRA court dismissed the petition and denied leave to amend. On June 21, 2018, the PCRA court issued an opinion pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a).

         On appeal to this court, Taylor raises three issues: whether the PCRA court had the authority to grant the requested post-conviction relief; whether the PCRA court erred or abused its discretion in denying discovery or the appointment of a special master; and whether the PCRA court erred or abused its discretion in denying Taylor's motion to amend the petition. We review the PCRA court's legal conclusions de novo and its findings of fact for record support. Commonwealth v. Williams, 196 A.3d 1021, 1026-27 (Pa. 2018).

         I. PCRA Court's Authority

         In his first issue, Taylor argues that the PCRA court erred in concluding that it lacked the authority to grant Taylor a new appeal from the denial of his third PCRA petition. Taylor asserts that he is prepared to demonstrate that his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law and his rights under Article I, Sections 1, 6, 9, 11, and 14, as well as Article V, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, were violated by the participation of two allegedly biased jurists in his appellate proceedings, or at least that there existed the appearance thereof. The remedy for such violations is, according to Taylor, a new appeal.

         Taylor maintains that the PCRA court has the authority to order the relief requested, if warranted, by virtue of the PCRA, which, he asserts, is the exclusive mechanism for redressing constitutional violations after a conviction has become final. As an example of a court of common pleas providing exactly the type of relief that Taylor is requesting, Taylor directs the Court's attention to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, which has been granting new appeals to this Court to defendants impacted by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1899 (2016).[4]

         In response, the Commonwealth agrees with the PCRA court that that court lacked the authority to direct this Court to hear Taylor's appeal anew because the PCRA court is subordinate to this Court. In addition, the Commonwealth argues that this Court's published disposition of Taylor's third PCRA appeal is binding precedent and the law of the case, and, therefore, may not be upset or set aside for any reason.

         In his Opinion in Support of Affirmance ("OISA"), Justice Dougherty agrees with Taylor that the claim of appellate court error is cognizable under the PCRA, and that nunc pro tunc relief is at least theoretically an available remedy. Justice Dougherty, however, agrees with the PCRA court and with the Commonwealth that the lower court lacks the authority to authorize an appeal nunc pro tunc to remedy an appellate-level constitutional error. Because the lower courts are inferior to this Court, the lower courts cannot, according to ...

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