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Pennsylvania courts don’t have to listen to the US Supreme Court


By Tara Yilmaz

→ Did you know that Pennsylvania courts don't have to listen to the United States Supreme Court of the United States Constitution?

“The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court," United States Constitution Article III (3): Section 1

→ Did you know most Americans understand the United States Supreme Court as the highest court in the land? Whether they read the historic Pennsylvania Constitution or not, it's rational for people to expect judges to follow the nine Supreme Court Justices' directions. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained in its 1998 decision in Commonwealth v. Chad Franciscus our state courts aren't bound to those rulings. According to the Franciscus case law, Pennsylvania courts can follow federal rulings but if they choose to they are; “free to reject the conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court." Instead, Pennsylvania courts are mandated to base their rulings on the logic of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

→ Did you know all state judges are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution? The judges swore to fulfill an obligation to the Pennsylvania Constitution Article VI (6): Section 3. Franciscus ruling states, “Even where the text of the provisions of the state and federal constitutions are similar or identical, the appellate courts are not bound to interpret them as if they were mirror images." In short, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court instructed its subordinate courts to pay primary attention to the state constitution even when provisions in both documents have the exact privileges and protections. Litigants must therefore raise claims of the Pennsylvania Constitution to become eligible for relief in either state civil or criminal courts.

→ Did you know in 1996, Congress enacted former President Bill Clinton's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in response to the previous year's Oklahoma City bombing. The new law was sold as the solution to national cries of prolonged waits for executions in criminal cases. However, that legislation had little ability to deter terrorist attacks or shorten the number of time prisoners spend on death row before they're executed. But the AEDPA did remove most of the power federal courts had to correct bad rulings in state criminal cases which have nothing to do with terrorism or death row. Which is how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could legally bound state courts to the Constitution of this Commonwealth and not the Constitution of the United States.

Without much federal oversight in appeals, prisoners who would otherwise prove their innocence have difficulty securing relief because of the AEDPA. As a result, justice varies from state to state. In the state of Pennsylvania, justice is defined by each district or even county where a person is accused of a crime. Since the passing of the AEDPA Pennsylvania court decisions have strayed far away from national standards, puzzling litigants who understand those provisions of the United States Constitution because they filed claims in other places.

→ Did you know confusion is highlighted in the case of Terrance Lewis, a Philadelphia teenager who was convicted of second-degree murder? Terrance Lewis was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999 as a youth. After unsuccessful appeals in state courts, Lewis maintained his innocence and appealed the conviction to Federal Magistrate Judge Berle M. Schiller in 2010. When a hearing concluded, Judge Schiller declared Lewis had proven his innocence but would die behind bars due to lack of jurisdiction to overturn the conviction of Pennsylvania courts. Stunned by that decision, Lewis appealed to the United States Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit (in which Pennsylvania is theoretically under). In 2011, the Circuit Court of three judges upheld Judge Schiller's ruling even though he was innocent of the crime. The United States Supreme Court ultimately denied an appellate review of the case. But Lewis was eventually released from prison in 2019 after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that defendants sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles had to receive new sentences.

→ Did you know many of the politicians who were proponents of the AEDPA in the 1990s now admit that it was a failure, including President Joe Biden, who was a senator at the time of passage? Although states have the right to set up their own laws, they must coincide with the United States Constitution. Otherwise, state governments will erroneously believe they are individual countries, a debate settled in 1865 when the U.S. Civil War ended. Resolving the AEDPA will immediately prevent bad judicial decisions because federal courts will once again have the authority to correct rogue courts such as the one that robbed teenage Lewis of two decades of freedom.



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