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Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in Civil, Constitutional Provisions | 0 comments

Scarnati v. Wolf: Press Releases aren’t “Proclamations”

In Scarnati v. Wolf, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rules 6-1 that a press release does not satisfy the Pennsylvania Constitution’s requirement of veto by proclamation under Article IV, Section 15.

In 2014, two appropriations bills passed the House and Senate, and were presented to the Governor for his signature. The House adjourned upon passing the bill, and the Governor vetoed the bill, returning it to the parliamentarian of the House. Unlike under the Federal Constitution, where the President’s veto back to the House would be the end of the matter if the House had adjourned, the Pennsylvania Constitution requires the Governor to issue a “proclamation” announcing his veto. The Governor, in this case, issued a press release announcing and explaining his veto. The House and Senate challenged the veto in court as invalid.

Two issues were presented in this appeal: first, what is an “adjournment” under this clause? Since the House adjourned, and the Senate did not, was the body adjourned such that the onus lay on the Governor to issue a proclamation, or on the House to re-consider the vetoed provisions of the two bills?

Majority by Wecht: The House was Adjourned, and Notice by Proclamation Was Required

The majority, speaking by Justice Wecht, held that the General Assembly did stand adjourned when the vetoed provisions of the bills were returned to the House parliamentarian, and that the Governor’s failure to publish a proclamation of his veto was fatal to the rejection of the bill. Discussing the overlap and distinctions of the Federal Government’s constitutionally prescribed procedure, the Court discussed the underlying goals of the “filing and proclamation” provisions of Article IV, Section 15. Paramount among these is public notice of the struggle between political branches, and the current status of a proposed bill.

The Court had little trouble dispensing with the “ambiguity” about when the legislature actually adjourned. There had been some discussion that the House had impermissibly adjourned without the Senate’s approval, but given that both houses had entered their adjournments upon their journals without any note of objection, the Court concluded that the presumption was in favor of constitutionality.

Given, then, that the House prevented the return of the Governor’s veto by its adjournment, the Court noted that the
The Court acknowledged that the parliamentarian is charged with receiving vetoes from the Governor during the regular session, but went on to reject the Governor’s argument that the parliamentarian was an “agent” of the House designated to accept “service” of vetoes. “We reject the Governor’s argument that the procedure utilized for the return of a bill during a legislative session somehow dictates the procedure to be used during an adjournment of the General Assembly.” The Court goes on to note that, even if the parliamentarian could be designated an agent for the House, there is no evidence that he was ever so designated.

Thus, the Court was constrained to consider whether the Governor appropriately followed the “filing and proclamation” protocol to finalize his veto. Although the Governor appropriately filed his objections with the Secretary of State, his issuance of a press release did not satisfy the requirements of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rejected Governor Wolf’s argument that changing technology made the press release or even a tweet a sufficient form of notice to all citizens. “Formality is a critical tool in distinguishing political rhetoric and advocacy in its myriad forms from public notice of a constitutionally or legally significant declaration. Such formality cannot be abandoned.”

Historically, proclamations in Pennsylvania have followed a very precise format. While that format need not be followed precisely, at least some of the “indicia” or “hallmarks” of formality needed to be included. These included the Governor’s seal, and most importantly, the proclamation had to include explicit language demonstrating that the Governor was following the “filing and proclamation” procedure under the Constitution. Thus, his “informal communication to the public via mass media” was insufficient to sustain a veto.

Conclusion: Budget Finality…For the 2014 Budget

This case demonstrates the importance of having constitutional scholars on staff in political offices. It is fairly important that the Governor’s staff gave little or no thought to the procedure for properly vetoing a bill under the circumstances, and only after the fact did they give thought to how to spin the situation to show that they had complied with the rules. As the old saying goes, it’s best to measure twice so you have to cut only once.
The precise definition of a “proclamation” may now come under fire in future cases. The Court offers a general form that has sufficed in the past, and the Governor’s office would be wise to use that form in future cases.
It is unfortunate that a case like this takes three years to reach a final ruling at SCOPA. Meanwhile, provisions of the budget laws have been under fire and in limbo. Now, at least, there is finality on the budget from three years ago.

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