"People are paying attention" to how Pa.'s justices will rule. They heard arguments yesterday.
By Mario F. Cattabiani
Inquirer Staff Writer
The Pennsylvania legislature might have repealed the controversial pay raises last year, but the state Supreme Court now
will decide whether to reinstate higher salaries for themselves and more than 1,000 other judges or whether the law was unconstitutional
from the start.
For 2½ hours yesterday, the state's top court heard arguments from all sides of the issue - from an activist who described
the pay raise as a fraud on the public, from lawyers who defended the legislative action, to lower court judges who want their
repealed raises back.
So unwieldy has the issue become that at one point yesterday Justice Michael Eakin described it as a "morass and quagmire."
It was standing room only at yesterday's hearing as journalists, lawyers and clerks crowded the Supreme Court courtroom
in Philadelphia City Hall.
G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College, said he could not remember a decision so eagerly
anticipated by the public, which will have this issue on its mind when it votes for House and Senate candidates in next month's
"There is no question that the Supreme Court is under a microscope here," he said. "People are paying attention to this
in a way that they don't normally for a case before the Supreme Court."
Before the court are a series of complex issues dealing with arcane constitutional provisions and the rules of lawmaking.
The court's decision could have broad ramifications in how a bill becomes a law in the future.
That's just what Gene Stilp is calling for.
The Harrisburg activist argued yesterday that the legislature violated the state constitution in so many ways when it approved
the raises last summer that the court has to step in and restore the public's faith in government. For one thing, Stilp said,
many lawmakers took the raises as "unvouchered expenses" in the middle of the term despite a constitutional ban against doing
"You have to trust the people. Don't look down on us," said Stilp, who asked the court to set precedent and rule
that the pay raise was unconstitutional. "We are the constitution."
Sally Ann Ulrich, a lawyer representing state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. who joined Stilp in his challenge, said the way the
pay raise was passed produced "a crisis of public confidence."
The original bill dealt with the salary of the governor. Legislators took the measure, cut its original language, inserted
the sweeping pay-raise provisions, and "slapped a new title on it," she said.
"How can we explain to a member of the public... that the legislative process is open and deliberative?"
Eakin wasn't necessarily convinced.
"Things aren't unconstitutional because people don't have confidence," he said. "They are unconstitutional because
they violate the constitution."
John Krill, a lawyer representing Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R., Blair) defended how the pay-raise
legislation was handled.
The bill's original subject was the same in the end, Krill said, equating it to a beam of light. Sometimes, it's sharply
focused; other times it's diffused. But it is still the same beam of light, he told the justices.
Whether the bill changed enough from its original purpose to render it unconstitutional "is the $64,000 question," Justice
Max Baer said.
The pay raise, which was approved July 7, increased legislative base salaries by 16 percent to $81,050. Legislative leaders
received much more.
It also increased salaries for top administration officials and, immediately, for more than 1,000 state judges.
After four months of intense public pressure, the legislature - in part as a self-preservation measure - reversed itself
and repealed the raises.
The about-face came after voters statewide, for the first time in modern times, denied a sitting Supreme Court justice,
Russell Nigro, another 10-year term. Such "retention votes" previously had been mere formalities, giving justices another
decade on the bench.
Last year, however, voters saw in Nigro a way to vent their pent-up pay-raise anger, and tossed him from the bench.
The legal arguments, coming a month before the primary election, likely will keep the issue alive in the minds of voters.
Spurred by the pay raise and the belief that they can do better, nearly 600 candidates - many of them political novices
- got on the primary ballots for 228 House and Senate seats. It's the largest field in at least 14 years.
In a separate but related argument heard by the court yesterday, a group of judges asked justices to reinstate their pay
raise, arguing legislators overstepped their power when they stripped them of their bigger paychecks.
Robert C. Heim, a lawyer representing one plaintiff, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron, pointed to a section
of the state constitution that bars the salary of judges from decreasing unless all other "salaried officers" of the state
receive similar cuts.
Heim argued that the justices should strike only the portion of the repeal dealing with judges, and keep the remainder.
If the court agrees, it could reinstate the pay raise for all judges, from district magistrates to Supreme Court justices.
Justices on the top court had seen their salaries rise to $172,000 annually, only to drop back down to $150,000 when the repeal
Chief Justice Ralph Cappy, one of the architects of the pay-raise legislation, recused himself from the case.
It's unclear when the court will rule on the matter. A separate case challenging the pay raise is pending in federal court
The Pennsylvania Constitution
Provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution that the state Supreme Court referenced when it agreed to consider three lawsuits
related to the governmental pay raise:
• Article III, Section 1: No law shall be passed except by bill, and no
bill shall be so altered or amended, on its passage through either House, as to change its original purpose.
• Article III, Section 2: No bill shall be considered unless referred to
a committee, printed for the use of the members and returned therefrom.
• Article III, Section 3: No bill shall be passed containing more than one
subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling
the law or a part thereof.
• Article III, Section 4: Every bill shall be considered on three different
days in each House. ...
• Article V, Section 16(a): Justices, judges and justices of the peace shall
be compensated by the Commonwealth as provided by law. Their compensation shall not be diminished during their terms of office,
unless by law applying generally to all salaried officers of the Commonwealth.
SOURCE: Pennsylvania Manual, December 2005; Associated Press