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When Courts Get it Wrong: Clark v. Beard

by Mumia Abu Jamal

When courts decide cases, the most important elements are the law, the facts and how to apply the relevant law to the facts.

When courts err in any of these elements the result is usually one that can be called into question, since it results in an injustice for one of the parties.

Of course we are looking at this topic in terms of generalities. The courts are tested when they are asked to decide questions raised by parties who stand in different social and political positions. Then we see that generalities are often subject to change, to preserve power relations in a given relationship.

Those generalities came into question recently when several death row prisoners in Pennsylvania, whose death sentences had been reversed by ?courts of competent jurisdiction,? tried to force the state to remove them from death row housing, where they remained.

The court they initially chose was the Court of Common Pleas, the trial level court which sits in each of the state?s 67 counties. Although a court of ?extraordinary jurisdiction,? it is also a court composed of elected jurists who are acutely aware of the social and political relationships that impact the elections by which they keep their jobs, and thus are loathe to upset them.

For seven men on the state?s most populous death row, this meant filing suit in Greene County, Pennsylvania ? a rural, rustic area that was once part of the state of Virginia, which has perhaps the highest unemployment in the state and the lowest percentage of residents of color (excluding the prison, of course).

There the plaintiffs received relatively short shrift, for the judge ruled against the claimants in all respects on the state?s demurrer, holding that the prisoners? averments, even if accepted as true, did not state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Among those averments was the claim that since the men?s death sentences had been reversed, they shouldn?t be subjected to the restrictions of solitary confinement ? including limited visitation and lack of communal religious and educational opportunities. Further, that the very nature of placement on death row, especially absent a death sentence, constituted cruel and unusual punishment as well as psychological trauma.

Having lost at the trial level (actually a trade-off of briefs as no actual trial occurred), the plaintiffs appealed to the Commonwealth Court, a relatively new court which handles many cases brought both against and by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The court was created by the state?s 1968 Constitution and came into existence on Jan. 1, 1970. A three-judge panel heard the prisoners? appeal and issued a split 2-1 decision on February 13, 2007.

The majority opinion is an example of the ?tough luck? jurisprudence that has marked the law in the latter days of the American judiciary. For, although the court was composed of three women, it spoke with a voice that was indistinguishable from one composed solely of their more hardened male brethren.

The majority, composed of judges Mary Hannah Leavitt and Bonnie B. Leadbetter, affirmed the decision of the lower court by determining that the issue of where a prisoner is housed is within the discretion of the Department of Corrections (DOC); that a writ of mandamus does not issue when an official is acting with discretion; and that under the U.S. Supreme Court?s decision in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), the appellants had no liberty interest in being placed in the prison?s general population.

The majority based the core of its ruling on its interpretation of a state statute, Section 2(a) of the Act of June 18, 1998, P.L. 622, 61 P.S. § 3002(a) (Act 80). Under this and related sections of the Act, the majority reasoned that once the governor signed an execution warrant for each appellant, the DOC was compelled by Section 3 of Act 80 to remove the appellant from the general population. The warrant was the trigger for moving a prisoner to lockup in the Capital Case Unit, the majority found, but not the key to releasing him from that unit.

The lone dissenter, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman, disagreed with the majority?s reasoning that the plaintiffs? claims of poor physical and mental health were equivalent to allegations of being held in the wrong place. ?By equating the two,? she stated, ?the majority suggests that parts of a prison are designed to cause human illness and suffering and that this would not be cruel punishment.?

Courts are by their very nature conservative institutions, and are wont to preserve the status quo. If the history of the law proves anything it is that. Judges, when they judge, and err either on the facts or the law, are almost assured of getting it wrong.

The majority did so in Clark v. Beard, 918 A.2d 155 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007).

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Related legal case

Clark v. Beard