Brouillette v. Wolf

Decision Date02 July 2019
Docket NumberNo. 410 M.D. 2017,410 M.D. 2017
Citation213 A.3d 341
Parties Matthew J. BROUILLETTE and Rep. James Christiana and Benjamin Lewis, Petitioners v. Thomas WOLF, Governor and Joseph Torsella, Treasurer and Eugene DePasquale, Auditor General and The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Michael Turzai, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Dave Reed, House Majority Leader and Joseph B. Scarnati, III, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Jake Corman, Senate Majority Leader and The Pennsylvania General Assembly, Respondents
CourtPennsylvania Commonwealth Court

Jonathan S. Goldstein, Hatfield, for petitioners.

Keli M. Neary, Acting Chief Deputy Attorney General, Pittsburgh, for respondents Thomas Wolf, Governor and The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Christopher Craig, Chief Counsel, Harrisburg, for respondent Joseph Torsella, Treasurer.

Matthew C. Pilsner, Pittsburgh, for respondents Michael Turzai, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Dave Reed, House Majority Leader.

Mark E. Seiberling, Philadelphia, for respondents Senators Joseph B. Scarnati, III and Jake Corman.



Before the Court are the various preliminary objections (POs) filed by Respondents1 to the amended petition for review (Amended Petition) filed by Matthew J. Brouillette, Representative James Christiana, and Benjamin Lewis (collectively, Petitioners) challenging the constitutionality of some of the actions taken by Respondents with regard to the state budget for fiscal years (FY) 2016-17 and FY2017-18.2 Senate Respondents have also filed an Application to Dismiss for Mootness (Application). We overrule the POs in part, sustain the POs in part, grant the Application, and dismiss the Amended Petition.

Petitioners filed the three-count Amended Petition alleging that Respondents have violated various constitutional provisions by establishing unbalanced budgets and authorizing loans to cover deficits that extended beyond the relevant fiscal years. With regard to FY2016-17, Petitioners allege that the General Operating Fund Budget closed with a $1.55 billion deficit in violation of Article 8, Section 12(a)3 and Section 13(a) of the Pennsylvania Constitution4 and Section 618(a) of the Administrative Code.5 To fulfill the Commonwealth's debt obligations, Petitioners claim that the Governor, Treasurer, and Auditor General approved a $750 million line of credit in August 2017, which was used, in part, to address the $1.55 billion deficit from the prior fiscal year. Because of this borrowing, Petitioners contend that Respondents violated Article 8, Section 7(a)(2)(ii) of the Pennsylvania Constitution.6 In addition, Petitioners claim that as revenues failed to materialize, the General Assembly and the Governor had a duty to cut spending to ensure a fully funded budget. This resulted in a deficit, which Petitioners refer to as an "unfunded loan" that "illegally followed the Commonwealth" into the current fiscal year. Amended Petition ¶51.

Additionally, Petitioners assert that this deficit was then compounded by the enactment of the budget for the FY2017-18 when the General Assembly passed a $31.38 billion General Appropriations Bill, which became law when the Governor failed to act on it. At the time of its passage, there was no revenue package in place to fund it. Petitioners maintain that the expenditures exceeded actual and estimated revenues in violation of the Constitution. Finally, Petitioners argue that the Governor had the authority and the duty under Article 4, Sections 157 and 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution8 to veto the budget, in whole or in part, but failed to do either.

In Count I, Petitioners seek declaratory judgment against the Governor on the grounds that he violated Article 4, Sections 15 and 16 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and Section 618 of the Administrative Code, by not vetoing all or part of the $31.38 billion General Appropriations Bill for FY2017-18 that exceeded estimated revenue thereby "authorizing the Commonwealth to appropriate and spend funds that exceeded actual and estimated revenues." Amended Petition at 27.

In Count II, Petitioners seek declaratory judgment against the Governor, Senate Respondents, House Respondents, and the Commonwealth generally on the grounds that they violated Article 8, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution because "the Commonwealth ended [FY2016-17] with a $1.55 billion deficit," and "the General Appropriations Bill for [FY2017-18] violates [ Article 8, Section 13 ] because, at the time of enactment, appropriations contained therein ‘exceed[ed] the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year[ ] by $600 million." Amended Petition at 29.

Finally, in Count III, Petitioners seek declaratory relief against the Governor, the Treasurer, the Auditor General, and the Commonwealth generally for violating Article 8, Sections 7 and 12 of the Pennsylvania Constitution "by authorizing lines of credit to fund a $1.55 billion deficit accrued in [FY2016-17] ... that spanned across multiple fiscal years," and "[t]hat the General Appropriations Bill for [FY2016-17] violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by appropriating funds in excess of anticipated revenues, thereby saddling the Commonwealth with a debt of $1.55 billion without the explicit approval of the General Assembly." Amended Petition at 36.

Respondents filed a joint motion to dismiss for mootness alleging that the subsequent passage of legislation eliminating any deficit from the past and current fiscal years' budget and appropriations bills rendered Petitioners' claims moot. This Court denied the joint motion on the basis that there are factual matters in dispute, such as whether the General Operating Fund Budget is currently balanced, and because Respondents did not explain how the subsequent legislation mooted the claim that they engaged in long-term borrowing in violation of Article 8, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Brouillette v. Wolf (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 410 M.D. 2017, filed December 28, 2017), slip op. at 10.

Respondents also filed four sets of POs.9 Respondents variously object on the following bases: (1) Petitioners lack capacity to sue (standing); (2) the Amended Petition is insufficiently specific; and (3) the Amended Petition fails to conform to the law or rule of court. In addition, Respondents demur on the following grounds: that the Amended Petition (1) presents a non-justiciable political question; (2) fails to meet the standard for declaratory judgment; (3) fails to state a claim against the Commonwealth or the Treasurer; (4) is moot; and (5) is barred by the doctrine of laches. Respondents also assert that the Senate and House Respondents are protected by legislative immunity and/or sovereign immunity. Subsequently, on September 6, 2018, the Senate Respondents filed the instant Application to dismiss Count II of the Amended Petition for mootness because no practical relief may be granted for the legal claim presented therein based on a change in circumstance and the requested relief is not precluded by our prior opinion.10



As a preliminary matter, Respondents first claim that Petitioners Brouillette and Lewis do not possess standing to prosecute the instant matter. In general, the question of standing relates to whether a party is entitled to have the court decide the merits of a dispute or of particular issues. Warth v. Seldin , 422 U.S. 490, 498, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975). As the United States Supreme Court has stated:

A federal court cannot "pronounce any statute, either of a State or of the United States, void, because irreconcilable with the Constitution, except as it is called upon to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies." Have the appellants alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions? This is the gist of the question of standing[.]

Baker v. Carr , 369 U.S. 186, 204, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962) (citation omitted).

Thus, "in order to have standing, a party must have an interest in the controversy that is distinguishable from the interest shared by other citizens. William Penn Parking Garage, Inc. v. City of Pittsburgh [464 Pa. 168, 346 A.2d 269 (Pa. 1975) ]." Sprague v. Casey , 520 Pa. 38, 550 A.2d 184, 187 (1988). To surpass the common interest shared by other citizens, the interest of a party must be "substantial, direct and immediate." Id.

In this case, with respect to all three counts in the Amended Petition, Petitioners Brouillette and Lewis allege that they have standing in this matter based on their status as taxpayers in this Commonwealth. See Amended Petition ¶¶8-10, 85-88. Regarding taxpayer standing, this Court has noted:

[T]he parameters of taxpayer standing in this Commonwealth have been defined by our Supreme Court in the case of Application of Biester v. Thornburgh [487 Pa. 438, 409 A.2d 848 (Pa. 1979) ]. In that case, our Supreme Court stated that the "purpose of the requirement of standing is to protect against improper plaintiffs." Id. [at 851]. In order to meet this requirement, a plaintiff must allege and prove an interest in the outcome of the suit, which surpasses "the common interest of all citizens in procuring obedience to the law." Id. [ (citation omitted) ]. To surpass the common interest of all citizens, the interest must be substantial, direct, and immediate. Id.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court recognized that certain cases exist in which the facts warrant the granting of standing to taxpayers where their interests

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