The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments on issues that will ultimately define the scope of Governor Tom Wolf’s powers as the State’s Chief Executive. This morning the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Governor Wolf’s executive “moratorium” on the execution of death row prisoners in Pennsylvania. Since taking office, Governor Wolf has suspended the execution of prisoners until a legislative panel completes an ongoing study on the use of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. Most view this “temporary moratorium” as the first step in eliminating capital punishment altogether in Pennsylvania.
The death penalty case revolves around death row inmate Terrance Williams who was convicted of beating a Philadelphia man to death with a tire iron over 30 years ago. Williams had unsuccessfully sought a pardon and to have his death penalty sentence overturned or commuted. Since taking office in January, Governor Wolf has granted Williams 3 reprieves, indefinitely postponing Williams’ scheduled execution.
Governor Wolf has taken the position that all executions in Pennsylvania should be suspended until the State’s legislature completes a study on the use of capital punishment. The Governor’s Office argues that as the State’s Chief Executive, Governor Wolf has “unconditional power” to grant reprieves to death row inmates and state courts have no jurisdiction to review or challenge his exercise of executive power.
Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams has challenged Governor Wolf’s actions as “flagrantly unconstitutional” and outside the scope of the Governor’s authority.
Considering Governor Wolf’s criticism of the continued use of the death penalty, the Supreme Court’s decision in Williams will likely have a significant impact on the ongoing viability of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. It will also help define the scope and breath of the Governor’s powers as chief executive. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty are watching this case closely.
In addition to the “death penalty moratorium,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is also hearing arguments on Governor Wolf’s authority to remove Erik Arneson from his position as Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. The Arneson case is interesting, but more nuanced than the death penalty moratorium case. Arneson centers on former Governor Corbett’s last minute appointment of Erik Arneson to the position of Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. The Office of Open Records is a new, quasi judicial state agency that is tasked with making preliminary decisions as to whether government records should be turned over to the public under the State’s “Right to Know Law.” This potentially means the Office of Open Records will decide whether the public is entitled to otherwise private records from the Governor’s Office.
On January 13, 2015, in his last week as Governor, Tom Corbett appointed Erik Arneson as Executive Director of the Office of Open Records. By statute, the Executive Director will serve a 6 year term. On January 20, 2015, Tom Wolf officially became the new Governor of Pennsylvania and one of his first acts as Governor was to fire Arneson.
Arneson appealed the decision to the State’s Commonwealth Court. On June 10, 2015, an en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court found Governor Wolf acted outside his authority in firing Arneson without cause. The Commonwealth Court ordered Arneson to be reinstated and awarded him back pay. Governor Wolf’s office appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments this morning.
The primary issue before the Supreme Court is whether the State legislature intended the Executive Director position of the Office of Open Records to be “independent” of the Governor’s Office. In other words, when the legislature created the Office of Open Records, did it intend to immunize the Executive Director from political influence, including the influence of the Governor. If it intended the office to be “independent,” then Governor Wolf would not be permitted to fire Arneson except for cause. If the legislature did not intend the Office of Open Records to be independent, then Arneson serves at the pleasure of the Governor and the Governor has unfettered authority to remove him for any reasons or no reason at all.
Governor Wolf contends that nothing on the legislation creating the Office of Open Records indicates that the office was meant to be “independent” and there are no limitations on his ability to appoint and replace the Executive Director “at will.”
Arneson obviously disagrees, arguing that by granting the Executive Director a 6 year term, which exceeds the term of the Governor by 2 years, the State legislature intended the Executive Director to operate free from political pressure or threats of removal from the Governor’s Office. Arneson also argues that the Office of Open Records is responsible for making decisions as to whether government records, including records from the Governor’s Office should be made public under the State’s Right to Know Laws. Given that authority, Arneson contends that the legislature clearly intended the office to be “independent.”
As with the death row moratorium, the Supreme Court’s decision in Arneson will help shape the limits of the Governor’s authority. It will also resolve contentious political wrangling between the outgoing Governor and Governor Wolf. Regardless, hearing both arguments at the same time means that in short order the Supreme Court will be making unprecedented decisions that influence the shape and operation of our State’s government.
Check back for updates.