Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania Lifers' Commutation-Law Ex Post Facto Suit Remanded to Determine Standing

by John D. Dannenberg

In 1997, an amalgam of Pennsylvania prisoners, taxpayers and public interest groups sued the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons (Board) and top state officials in U.S. District Court, challenging restrictive 1997 amendments to Pennsylvania's commutation statutes as violating the Ex Post Facto clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On March 13, 2006 the district court ruled in favor of affected life prisoners on some claims, but against death-sentenced prisoners. See: Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Rendell, USDC MD Pa., 2006 WL 4998630, amending 419 F.Supp.2d 651 (MD Pa. 2006). On appeal by the defendant Board members, the issue of standing was first raised. The Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held the plaintiffs had not developed below that they in fact had "standing" to bring the complaint, and dismissed and remanded to the district court to determine the standing issue.

Both life-sentenced and death-sentenced prisoners in Pennsylvania must apply to the Board (and Governor) for a commutation or pardon in order to gain release. Prior to 1997, the relevant statute required applicants to obtain a majority vote of the five-member Board. The 1997 amendments changed that requirement to a unanimous vote. Additionally, prior to 1997 the three at-large appointed Board members were to consist of a member of the bar, a penologist and a doctor or psychologist. Post-1997, the first two were amended to be a crime victim and a corrections expert; the plaintiffs complained that these changes "virtually shut out" prisoners from obtaining clemency, and that the amendments therefore violated the Ex Post Facto clause. The district court agreed and the defendants appealed.

Before reaching the merits of a controversy, a federal court must first determine its own jurisdiction. A primary prerequisite is that the parties have "standing." Standing is a fundamental precept in the law that requires the party filing a lawsuit to establish three elements: an injury in fact, a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, and the substantial likelihood of remedy (relief from the injury). Although no one raised the question in the district court, one appellant did so on appeal. Accordingly, the appellate court first considered that question.

The Third Circuit noted that the plaintiffs belonged to three distinguishable groups: organizations that lobbied on behalf of prisoners, taxpayer/citizens, and affected prisoners. The appeals court found that the advocacy organizations had no standing because they demonstrated no palpable injury to themselves: only to their ideals. It found against the taxpayer/citizens because any concerns they had were purely generalized. As to the prisoners, it found that they did not demonstrate through evidence that they were personally injured in fact. That is, no one demonstrated that they would have obtained a majority vote from the Board but were later cut off by the 1997 unanimity requirement.

While the prisoners showed statistically that commutations dropped from about 16 per year (1989-1994) to about 0.4 per year (post-1997), they could not prove that the statutory amendment was the cause of this reduction because the rate had already plummeted in 1994 and 1995: two years before the amendment was enacted.

The appellate court recognized that the question of standing had not been raised in the district court, where the parties might have been able to cure some of the apparent omissions with direct evidence. Accordingly, it dismissed the appeal without prejudice due to lack of jurisdiction and remanded to permit the district court to develop the record as to the standing of the plaintiffs to bring the action. See: Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Cortes, 508 F.3d 156 (3rd Cir. 2007).

On remand, the district court scheduled an evidentiary hearing for June 2, 2008 to determine the plaintiffs' standing in regard to evidence of injury. See: Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Schweiker, USDC MD PA, Case No. 3:97-cv-1731, 2007 WL 4375931 (Dec. 11, 2007).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Cortes

Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Schweiker

Pennsylvania Prison Society v. Rendell