Secretary of the Commonwealth Issues Notice of Three Proposed Constitutional Amendments

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WE, the people of Pennsylvania, have been governed by five different iterations of the state constitution since December 12, 1787, the day of our statehood. Each of those versions is the product of a state constitutional convention. Conventions, however, are typically called when the entire constitution is in need of a comprehensive overhaul. Sometimes, specific amendments to the state constitution are put forth for adoption. When that happens, there is a procedure filled with checks and balances to make a specific change to the constitution without going through the cumbersome convention process.

Article XI of the Pennsylvania Constitution lays forth the process for adoption of constitutional amendments. A proposed amendment must be put forth by either the Pennsylvania House of Representatives or the Pennsylvania Senate as a joint resolution. Joint resolutions follow the same course for adoption as bills; they require consideration on three days in each chamber. Once finally passed, the Secretary of the Commonwealth must publish notice three months prior to the next general election. However, the process doesn’t end there. The very same constitutional amendment must be passed by the General Assembly in the following legislative session and then put to the voters as a referendum question.

This week, the Secretary of the Commonwealth issued notice of three proposed constitutional amendments. The first proposed amendment would formally eliminate the Philadelphia Traffic Court. The court was at the center of controversy earlier this year after an investigation was commissioned by Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Practically speaking, the traffic court no longer exists, as its powers and duties as laid out statutorily have been moved to the Philadelphia Municipal Court by enactment of Act 17 of 2013. For more information and the text of the proposed amendment, see:

http://www.legis.state.pa.us//cfdocs/Legis/CSM/showMemoPublic.cfm?chamber=S&SPick=20130&cosponId=10795

The second proposed amendment would give the state legislature the authority to determine what charities qualify as a “purely public charity.” Right now, whether or not an institution qualifies as a purely public charity is governed by a five-prong test established in case law. An institution’s status as a purely public charity is important because such charities are exempt from paying real estate taxes. For more information, see:

http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2013&sind=0&body=S&type=B&BN=0004

The third proposed amendment would change the mandatory retirement age for Pennsylvania’s judges from 70 to 75. The mandatory retirement age was the subject of a federal discrimination lawsuit, but the court held that the requirement is constitutional as written. Therefore to change it, a constitutional amendment is necessary.  It is argued that the experience and knowledge of veteran jurists coupled with increased life expectancies warrant this change. For more, see:

http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2013&sind=0&body=H&type=B&bn=79

Each of these amendments will be considered separately, and it will be a long, arduous process to move from proposal to formal constitutional amendment with no doubt twists and turns along the way. Each will have to pass yet again in the 2015-2016 session and then be put before the voters for ratification. If they are fast-tracked by the General Assembly, ratification could happen as early as spring of 2015. Whenever passage—by the legislature or the voters—occurs, you can find out about it on this blog (http://www.pagovernmentrelations.com/) or Twitter at https://twitter.com/buchanangov.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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