Com. v. Sutley

Decision Date07 October 1977
Citation378 A.2d 780,474 Pa. 256
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. James William SUTLEY and James D. Parker, Appellants.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

William J. Rundorff, Henry J. Russo, Asst. Public Defenders, Mercer, for appellants.

Joseph J. Nelson, Dist. Atty., Robert F. Banks, Asst. Dist. Atty., Mercer, for appellee.



NIX, Justice.

Appellants James William Sutley and James D. Parker were convicted in the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County in unrelated prosecutions for possession of marijuana, a felony under the Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act of 1961, Act of September 26, 1961, P.L. 1664, § 4, 35 P.S. § 780-4 (1964) (now repealed). Appellant Sutley entered a plea of guilty to the charge and was sentenced on July 2, 1971, to a term of imprisonment for not less than one nor more than three years in a state correctional institution. Appellant Parker, who also pleaded guilty to the charge, was sentenced on March 3, 1972, to a term of one and one half to four years in a state correctional institution. No direct appeal was taken from the judgment of sentence by either appellant.

Thereafter, on April 14, 1972, the General Assembly enacted the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, Act of April 14, 1972, P.L. 233, No. 64, § 1, 35 P.S. § 780-101 et seq. (Supp.1976-77) which repealed and extensively revised the prior law governing this field. 1 Among the more significant changes, the new Act classified possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor, and the penalties for violation were accordingly reduced. The maximum sentence provided upon conviction for possession of more than thirty grams was up to one year of imprisonment and/or a five thousand dollar fine, 2 while possession of thirty grams or less resulted in no more than a thirty day prison term and/or a fine of one hundred dollars. 3

The revised Act was subsequently amended by the legislature on July 25, 1973, to provide for the resentencing in certain cases of individuals convicted of possession of marijuana under the prior Act. The amended section provides in full as follows:

The provisions of this act shall not affect any act done, liability incurred, or right accrued or vested, or affect any suit or prosecution pending to enforce any right or penalty or punish any offense under the authority of any Act of Assembly, or part thereof, repealed by this act: Provided, however, That in any case final on or before June 12, 1972 in which a defendant was sentenced for the commission of acts similar to those proscribed by subsection (16) or (31), but not (30), of section 13(a) of this act, such defendant shall be resentenced under this act upon his petition if the penalties hereunder are less than those under prior law and in such case the prior criminal record of the defendant shall be expunged to the extent that such record shall no longer contain any reference to the prior grade of the offense if higher than the grade of the offense to which defendant is resentenced. Act of April 14, 1972, P.L. 233, No. 64, § 38, as amended by Act of July 25, 1973, No. 54, § 1, 35 P.S. § 780-138 (Supp.1976-77).

Appellants Sutley and Parker, in separate petitions filed with the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, sought resentencing under the amendment. It is conceded that both petitions alleged facts which, if proven would have required that appellants be resentenced in accordance with the amendment. A rule was issued upon the Commonwealth to show cause why the appellants should not be resentenced. The Mercer County District Attorney filed an answer to the petitions alleging only that the statute upon which appellants relied was unconstitutional. The lower court agreed and dismissed the petitions for resentencing. A timely appeal from the order dismissing the petitions was taken to the Superior Court, and that court certified the matter here for disposition. 4 We now affirm.

The court below determined that the 1973 amendment was constitutionally repugnant as violating the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers, because the enactment intruded upon the governor's power to commute sentences under Article IV, Section 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Pa.Const. art. IV, § 9 (1968) and operated as a legislative impairment of existing final legal judgments. We agree that the amendment undermines and thus fatally interferes with final judgments of the judiciary and therefore we need not consider the alternative basis of constitutional invalidity relied upon by the court below.

We note at the outset that it is a fundamental principle in our conception of judicial authority that courts are not to inquire into the wisdom, reason or expediency behind a legislative enactment. Commonwealth v. Moir, 199 Pa. 534, 49 A. 351 (1901). Nor are the motives of the legislators in passing the act open to judicial consideration. Commonwealth v. Keary, 198 Pa. 500, 48 A. 472 (1901). Our inquiry in such cases can only be directed to the manner in which the legislature effectuates its will, to insure that the enactment does not transgress some specific constitutional prohibition.

The standards to be applied in making this determination are equally well settled. It is axiomatic that a legislative enactment is presumed to be constitutional.

"There is, of course, a strong presumption in favor of the constitutionality of statutes a presumption which reflects on the part of the judiciary the respect due to the legislature as a co-equal branch of government." (footnotes omitted) School Districts of Deer Lakes and Allegheny Valley v. Kane, 463 Pa. 554, 562, 345 A.2d 658, 662 (1975).

Accordingly, the burden rests on those alleging unconstitutionality to show that an enactment "clearly, palpably and plainly" violates the constitution. Tosto v. Pennsylvania Nursing Home Agency, 460 Pa. 1, 331 A.2d 198 (1975); Daly v. Hemphill, 411 Pa. 263, 191 A.2d 835 (1963); Rubin v. Bailey, 398 Pa. 271, 157 A.2d 822 (1960); Clark v. Meade, 377 Pa. 150, 104 A.2d 465 (1954); Lighton v. Abington Township, 336 Pa. 345, 9 A.2d 609 (1939); Sharpless v. Mayor of Philadelphia, 21 Pa. 147 (1853).

We are satisfied in the instant case that the appellee has sustained its burden of demonstrating the unconstitutionality of the 1973 amendment. A plain reading of the enactment reveals that it is couched in mandatory language; it unquestionably directs that a defendant "shall be resentenced under this act upon his petition if the penalties hereunder are less than those under prior law . . ." The amendment is, in operation and effect, a legislative command to the courts to open a judgment previously made final, and to substitute for that judgment a disposition of the matter in accordance with the subsequently expressed legislative will. The vesting in the legislature of the power to alter final judgments would be repugnant to our concept of the separation of the three branches of government.

The doctrine of the separation of governmental powers into the legislative, executive and judicial departments has been inherent in the structure of this Commonwealth's government since its inception.

This separation appeared in Pennsylvania as early as 1776 in the Plan or Form of Government for the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania, prepared by the convention in that year. The separation was continued in our constitutions of 1790, of 1838, and of 1873. Accordingly, when the Constitution of 1873 was adopted, the people acted in the light of generations of experience with the operation of the doctrine of the separation of powers, and with the resulting necessity for judicial review to resolve differences of opinion between the legislative, executive or judicial departments concerning the scope and extent of the delegated powers. Dauphin County Grand Jury Investigation Proceedings (No. 2), 332 Pa. 342, 352-53, 2 A.2d 804, 807 (1938) (footnote omitted).

See generally, Commonwealth ex rel. Carroll v. Tate, 442 Pa. 45, 274 A.2d 193 (1971); Pennsylvania Company v. Scott, 346 Pa. 13, 29 A.2d 328 (1943); Wilson v. Philadelphia School District, 328 Pa. 225, 195 A. 90 (1937); Commonwealth v. Mathues, 210 Pa. 372, 59 A. 961 (1904); De Chastellux v. Fairchild, 15 Pa. 18 (1850); Greenough v. Greenough, 11 Pa. 489 (1849). Similarly, we have long recognized that the judicial branch is not subordinate to the other branches of government but is co-equal, distinct and independent.

The judiciary is a constituent or coordinate part of government; it is not subordinate to other powers, nor does it depend for existence on the legislative will. Its powers come directly from the people, without intervening agency. From the very nature of its time-honored powers, it should be kept a separate, distinct and independent entity in government . . . The domain of the judiciary is in the field of the administration of justice under the law; it interprets, construes and applies the law. Commonwealth v. Widovich, et al., 295 Pa. 311, 322, 145 A. 295, 299 (1929).

See also Bedford v. Shilling, 4 S. & R. 401, 410 (1818). Thus, it necessarily follows that any encroachment upon the judicial power by the legislature is offensive to the fundamental scheme of our government. Bailey v. Waters, 308 Pa. 309, 162 A. 819 (1932); Ervine's Appeal, 16 Pa. 256 (1851); Greenough v. Greenough, supra.

We recognize that the doctrine of the separation of powers was not intended to hermetically seal off the three branches of government from one another. It was obviously intended that there would be a degree of interdependence and reciprocity between the various branches. Cf. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 122, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659 (1976). It is also true as noted by the dissenters that there may be some areas where the dividing lines between the respective responsibilities of the three branches may be difficult to defin...

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