Act 192 of 2014, which allows a broad class of individuals and organizations to challenge municipal firearm legislation and recover their attorney fees, is unconstitutional and void, an en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court has ruled in Leach v. Turzai, __ A.3d __ (No. 585 MD 2014, filed June 25, 2015). Act 192 began as a two-page bill (HB 80) amending the Crimes Code to establish criminal penalties for the theft of secondary metals, such as copper and aluminum. In the final stages of the bill’s enactment, the provision at the core of this dispute was added amending the Crimes Code to grant sweeping new rights to gun advocates to challenge municipal firearm ordinances and mandate an award of attorney fees upon rescission or repeal of such an ordinance. Act 192 was signed into law by the Governor on November 6, 2014, and became effective January 5, 2015. Five members of the General Assembly and the Cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster (Petitioners) filed a complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging Act 192 was enacted in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article III, Section 1 (original purpose) and Section 3 (single subject). Two General Assembly members (Respondents) filed preliminary objections seeking dismissal, and Petitioners moved for summary relief. The Commonwealth Court heard oral argument on April 15, 2015.
Writing for a 6-1 majority, Judge Simpson granted Petitioners’ motion for summary relief, holding that Act 192 violates Article III, Section 1 and Section 3. Beginning with the “single subject” requirement of Article III, Section 3, the Court noted that Pennsylvania Supreme Court jurisprudence requires differing topics within a bill to be “germane” to each other. Here, Act 192 imposed criminal penalties for the theft of secondary metals; amended record disclosure responsibilities of the State Police; and created a civil cause of action for individuals and organizations against municipalities to challenge firearms legislation, with broad provisions for standing and attorney fees. The Court held that these primary subjects “are so disparate that they lack any clear, common nexus. Thus we discern no single unifying subject to which all of Act 192’s provisions are germane.” The majority rejected Respondents’ argument that amending the Crimes Code is a single unifying purpose under Article III, Section 3, emphasizing the disparity between the Act’s criminal penalties and civil remedies.
The Court also held that Act 192 violates Article III, Section 1’s requirement that a bill maintain its “original purpose” throughout the legislative process. Even when viewed in “reasonably broad terms,” the Court concluded that the original and final purposes of the bill regulated “vastly different activities.” The Court rejected Respondents’ argument that the legislature may alter the original purpose of legislation so long as it retains the original purpose.
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge McCullough disagreed with the majority that Act 192 violates the single-subject rule because, in her view, amending the Crimes Code is a permissible unifying subject under Article III, Section 3. Judge McCullough agreed with the majority that Act 192 violates the original purpose requirement of Article III, Section 1. Perceiving a conflict in the case law regarding the legislature’s ability to amend the Crimes Code without running afoul of Article III, Judge McCullough queried “whether there is a legally conceptual basis to differentiate between a single-subject and an original purpose challenge.” She opined that, under the majority’s analysis, it is unclear how the legislature can amend the Crimes Code to comport with both doctrines.
Photo: By Niagara (Own work)