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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.



         This case forces us to confront a question of immense constitutional significance: whether a lower court possesses authority to order a higher tribunal to rehear an appeal where a defendant alleges that a constitutional error - in this case, a due process claim predicated on supposed judicial bias - occurred during the original appellate process. Without hesitation or meaningful analysis, Justice Wecht would conclude lower courts do possess this power, effectively authorizing those courts to undo our prior, binding decisions. Respectfully, this conclusion is indefensible. As I explain below, whether an allegation of appellate court error is cognizable under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa.C.S. §§9541-9546, is an issue of first impression for this Court, and the answer to that question is far from obvious. Even if the Legislature had intended to make appellate court errors of the nature alleged here cognizable under the PCRA, I conclude the remedy sought by appellant and sanctioned in the Opinion in Support of Reversal ("OISR") offends the Pennsylvania Constitution. Accordingly, I would affirm the order of the PCRA court.

         Appellant filed the instant, facially untimely PCRA petition - his fourth - on December 8, 2014.[1] In his petition, appellant alleged he learned through various newspaper articles issued in the fall of 2014 that former Justice Seamus P. McCaffery had engaged in "ex parte emails with [appellant's] party opponent, the [Office of] Attorney General[, ]" between 2008 and 2014. PCRA Petition at 1. During that period, this Court unanimously affirmed on untimeliness grounds the order dismissing appellant's third PCRA petition. See Commonwealth v. Taylor, 67 A.3d 1245 (Pa. 2013) ("Taylor IV"). In appellant's view, the fact that former Justice McCaffery traded emails with members of the OAG during the pendency of Taylor IV "raise[s] a serious risk of actual bias" implicating due process concerns. PCRA Petition at 1. The remedy for this alleged constitutional violation, appellant argued, is the grant of "a new PCRA appeal" in this Court. Id. at 13. See also N.T. 4/26/2018, at 13-14 (arguing "[t]he issue is . . . a due process violation" and "the remedy that we are asking [for] is a new appeal").

         The PCRA court was not persuaded. See id. at 14 ("What authority do I have to order the Supreme Court to grant your client a new appeal? I have been waiting for that response for a year and a half now, and I haven't seen it."). Accordingly, it issued a notice of its intent to dismiss appellant's petition on May 1, 2018. In its notice the court explained that, even assuming appellant could support his allegation of actual judicial bias with real evidence, the PCRA court is inferior to this Court; therefore, it lacked the authority to order this Court to rehear appellant's prior PCRA appeal anew. See Notice of Intent to Dismiss, 5/1/2018, at 3, citing Pa. Const. art. V, §§ 2, 10. On May 23, 2018, the PCRA court formally dismissed appellant's petition.

         Faced on appeal with the opposing positions forwarded by appellant and the Commonwealth (which adopts the PCRA court's position), Justice Wecht summarily credits the former and assails the latter. Without citing any authority, the OISR proclaims that "[i]f an error of constitutional magnitude occurs during the appellate process, the PCRA is the sole means of collaterally attacking the final judgment on that basis." OISR at 9. Further, and again without identifying any supporting authority, the OISR declares "there is no requirement that a post-conviction claim be premised upon a violation of rights occurring at trial, nor is there any suggestion in the PCRA itself or in this Court's precedent that alleged errors occurring in the appellate process are immune from collateral attack, or that only an appellate court can redress appellate errors." Id. at 9-10. To my knowledge, and as appellant apparently agrees, see Appellant's Reply Brief at 2, this is an issue of first impression for this Court. As such, it deserves far greater attention than the OISR accords to it - particularly because I do not believe the answer is nearly as simple as the hasty conclusions expressed in the OISR suggest.

         The scope of the PCRA is explicitly defined in the Act as follows:

This subchapter provides for an action by which persons convicted of crimes they did not commit and persons serving illegal sentences may obtain collateral relief. The action established in this subchapter shall be the sole means of obtaining collateral relief and encompasses all other common law and statutory remedies for the same purpose that exist when this subchapter takes effect, including habeas corpus and coram nobis. This subchapter is not intended to limit the availability of remedies in the trial court or on direct appeal from the judgment of sentence, to provide a means for raising issues waived in prior proceedings or to provide relief from collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Except as specifically provided otherwise, all provisions of this subchapter shall apply to capital and noncapital cases.

42 Pa.C.S. §9542 (emphasis added). We have explained this language "demonstrates quite clearly that the General Assembly intended that claims that could be brought under the PCRA must be brought under that Act." Commonwealth v. Hall, 771 A.2d 1232, 1235 (Pa. 2001) (emphasis in original). See also Commonwealth v. Fahy, 737 A.2d 214, 223 (Pa. 1999) ("the PCRA subsumes the writ of habeas corpus with respect to remedies offered under the PCRA"), citing Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 722 A.2d 638 (Pa. 1998). The precise question we must answer first, then, is whether appellant's claim can be brought under the PCRA.

         "In order to state a cognizable claim under the PCRA, a PCRA petitioner must plead and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his conviction resulted from one or more of the errors or defects listed in 42 Pa.C.S. §9543(a)(2)." Commonwealth v. Liebel, 825 A.2d 630, 632 (Pa. 2003). Although not explicitly stated in his petition, the only error even arguably implicated by appellant's judicial bias-based due process claim is Section 9543(a)(2)(i). See N.T. 4/26/2018, at 14 (arguing that under the PCRA, "if it is a constitutional violation, [a PCRA court] has jurisdiction"). That section permits relief where a petitioner's conviction or sentence resulted from "[a] violation of the Constitution of this Commonwealth or the Constitution or laws of the United States which, in the circumstances of the particular case, so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place." 42 Pa.C.S. §9543(a)(2)(i).

         I have little conceptual difficulty accepting that this language encompasses judicial bias-based due process claims related to a judge who presided over a trial or sentencing proceeding; it is considerably more difficult, however, to reach the same conclusion with respect to a supposed bias harbored by an appellate jurist. This is so because appellate jurists, and the appellate process generally, have no connection to "the truth-determining process" or the reliability of the "adjudication of guilt or innocence." Thus, contrary to Justice Wecht's belief, see OISR at 9-10, a literal reading of Section 9543(a)(2)(i) in fact supports the notion that appellate court errors, even those of constitutional magnitude, are not cognizable under the Act.

         But I also recognize this Court has repeatedly expressed concern that the unavoidable result of a literal reading of this "truth-determining process" language "is a bifurcated system of post-conviction review, in which certain claims for relief are considered under the PCRA, while other claims for relief are considered outside its framework." Commonwealth v. Lantzy, 736 A.2d 564, 569 (Pa. 1999). Such a system, we have remarked, would run contrary to the legislature's intent to make the PCRA the exclusive vehicle for obtaining collateral review. See id.; 42 Pa.C.S. §9542. For this reason, at least in the context of ineffective assistance of counsel claims, we have "taken great pains on multiple occasions to explain why we believe the General Assembly preferred a broader construction of the PCRA's scope," regardless of the "truth-determining process" language contained in Section 9543(a)(2)(ii). Commonwealth v. Haun, 32 A.3d 697, 705 (Pa. 2011). See, e.g., Liebel, 825 A.2d at 635-36 (counsel's failure to file petition for allowance of appeal on direct appeal "sufficiently establishes that the truth-determining process has been undermined"); Commonwealth ex rel. Dadario v. Goldberg, 773 A.2d 126, 130 (Pa. 2001) (claim that counsel had been ineffective during plea-bargaining process was cognizable under Section 9543(a)(2)(ii) despite fact that ineffectiveness may not have undermined truth-determining process in traditional sense); Commonwealth v. Chester, 733 A.2d 1242, 1250 (Pa. 1999) ("truth-determining" and "guilt or innocence" language used in Section 9543(a)(2)(ii) does not foreclose post-conviction review of penalty phase issues in capital case); see also Lantzy, 736 A.2d at 569-70 (rejecting Superior Court's conclusion that for a petitioner's claim to be cognizable under Section 9543(a)(2)(ii), the claim must raise a question of whether an innocent individual has been convicted).

         On the other hand, "the boundaries of cognizable claims under the PCRA can only be extended so far as is consistent with the purposes of the statute[.]" Commonwealth v. Judge, 916 A.2d 511, 520 (Pa. 2007). Indeed, despite our recognition of the legislature's intent to channel the widest possible category of post-conviction claims into the PCRA's framework, we have on occasion recognized that certain issues fall outside the PCRA. See Commonwealth v. West, 938 A.2d 1034, 1044 (Pa. 2007) (substantive due process challenge to the continued validity of a judgment of sentence after a nine-year pre-incarceration delay not cognizable under the PCRA); Judge, 916 A.2d at 520 (allegation that Canada violated appellant's rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights by deporting him to face a death sentence not cognizable under the PCRA because claim has "no connection to the truth-determining process and do[es] not render the underlying adjudication of guilt or innocence . . . unreliable"). In these unique situations, we found the claims "did not implicate any of the remedies ...

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