Scott v. Pa. Bd. of Probation & Parole

Decision Date19 October 2022
Docket Number16 WAP 2021
Citation284 A.3d 178
Parties Marie SCOTT, Normita Jackson, Marsha Scaggs, Reid Evans, Wyatt Evans, Tyreem Rivers v. PENNSYLVANIA BOARD OF PROBATION AND PAROLE Appeal of: Marie Scott, Normita Jackson, Marsha Scaggs, Tyreem Rivers
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Cheryl Ann Brooks, Esq., Defender Association of Philadelphia, for Amicus Curiae Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Mary Casey, Esq., Mark David Taticchi, Esq., Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, Philadelphia, for Amicus Curiae The Sentencing Project.

Susan Mon-Yi Lin, Esq., Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, LLP, Philadelphia, for Amicus Curiae Scholars of Eighth Amendment Law.

Nyssa E. Taylor, Esq., for Amicus Curiae American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Francis Boyd, Pro Se.

Quinn Alexander Cozzens, Bret Douglas Grote, Nia Olivia Naheelah Holston, Esqs., Abolitionist Law Center, Deneekie Kaleel Grant, Ashley Kristin Henderson, Esqs., Amistad Law Project, for Appellants Marie Scott, Normita Jackson, Marsha Scaggs, Tyreem Rivers.

Ronald Eisenberg, Esq., Philadelphia, for Appellee Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

Caleb Curtis Enerson, Esq., Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, 651 Boas Street, Alan Matthew Robinson, Esq., for Appellee Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.

BAER, C.J., TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, BROBSON, JJ.

JUSTICE DONOHUE

The four named appellants were convicted of what is today codified as second-degree murder1 and as a result are ineligible for parole per 61 Pa.C.S. § 6137(a)(1). ("The board may parole ... any offender to whom the power to parole is granted to the board by this chapter, except an offender condemned to death or serving life imprisonment."). Appellants filed a petition for review in the nature of a complaint in the Commonwealth Court, seeking a declaration that Section 6137(a)(1)2 is unconstitutional as applied on the grounds that depriving Appellants of any opportunity for parole violates the constitutions of this Commonwealth and the United States. We granted review to determine whether this suit was within the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction to hear suits against government agencies like the Board of Probation and Parole ("Board")3 or whether the petition fell within the statutory exception for petitions in the nature of post-conviction relief. We affirm the Commonwealth Court's holding that it lacked jurisdiction. While some claims challenging parole eligibility may be heard in the Commonwealth Court, these claims, which require the declaration of a new constitutional holding that life sentences without the possibility of parole ("LWOP") sentences are unconstitutional, are encompassed by the statutory exception for petitions in the nature of post-conviction relief. We therefore affirm.

I.Procedural Background

On May 19, 2020, each appellant submitted an application for parole to the Board.4

Petition for Review, 7/8/2020, at 9-10, ¶ 19. The Board denied each application on the basis that serving a sentence of life imprisonment rendered each ineligible for parole per Section 6137. Id . at 10, ¶ 20. On July 8, 2020, counsel filed a petition for review in the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction, seeking a declaration that Section 6137(a)(1) was unconstitutional as applied. The petition raised two claims for relief. First, that the Board's enforcement of the statute "violates Art. I, § 13 of the Pennsylvania state constitution prohibiting ‘cruel punishments.’ " Id . at 36, ¶ 133. With respect to this count, Appellants argued that the analysis would be the same as under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the Pennsylvania Constitution must offer at least as much protection. The second claim argued that if the first claim were rejected the statute is unconstitutional under the heightened protections of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Id . at 38, ¶ 141 (citing Commonwealth v. Edmunds , 526 Pa. 374, 586 A.2d 887 (1991) ).

The Board, represented by the Attorney General, filed preliminary objections, which included a "lack of jurisdiction / improper venue." While 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1) authorizes suits "[a]gainst the Commonwealth government," the Board pointed to the statutory exception for "actions or proceedings in the nature of applications for a writ of habeas corpus or post-conviction relief not ancillary to proceedings within the appellate jurisdiction of the court." 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1)(i). According to the Board, the claims raised fit within this statutory exception. Preliminary Objections, 8/7/2020, at unnumbered ¶ 11.

Appellants replied to the objections, arguing, in pertinent part, that the Commonwealth Court had original jurisdiction over the matter because they were not challenging their sentence of life imprisonment. Their fundamental position was that the trial court imposed the sentence of life imprisonment but did not impose a sentence of life without parole. The inability to receive parole is a result of multiple statutory provisions, "but it is not part of the sentence per se." Answer to Preliminary Objection, 9/8/2020, at 3, ¶ 2. Thus, the sought relief did not implicate their criminal sentences but merely "parole eligibility, which may or may not result in release, and ... does not challenge Petitioners’ underlying convictions or sentences[.]" Id . at 8, ¶ 16 (emphasis omitted).

The Commonwealth Court sustained the jurisdictional preliminary objection and dismissed the petition. Scott v. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole , 256 A.3d 483, 485 (Pa. Commw. 2021). The panel drew guidance from Stackhouse v. Commonwealth , 574 Pa. 558, 832 A.2d 1004 (2003) (plurality), which addressed whether the Commonwealth Court had jurisdiction over a three-count complaint filed by Diane Stackhouse, a Pennsylvania State Police employee. The allegations concerned Stackhouse's application for a job promotion, which entailed an internal investigation. Stackhouse alleged that certain PSP employees were permitted to improperly probe her private affairs. Stackhouse named as defendants the PSP, the PSP Commissioner, and Deputy Commissioner Paul Evanko. The first count of the complaint sought a declaration that Stackhouse's privacy and reputational interests were harmed during the investigation. The second and third counts sought monetary damages from Commissioner Evanko.

Stackhouse filed her suit in the court of common pleas. The defendants filed preliminary objections asserting that the Commonwealth Court had original jurisdiction, because the complaint was against the PSP as an agency and its officials. The trial court granted the jurisdictional objection and transferred the action to the Commonwealth Court, which in turn determined that the actions were essentially tort actions. Those actions are specifically excluded from its original jurisdiction. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1)(v) (generally excluding actions against government officials "in the nature of trespass"). It therefore dismissed the petition for lack of original jurisdiction.

We affirmed, with no majority opinion. The primary difficulty was that all parties agreed that the first count was within the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction, but the remaining two were excluded because they were essentially tort actions. The Commonwealth argued that the Commonwealth Court had ancillary jurisdiction over counts two and three per 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(c) ("To the extent prescribed by general rule the Commonwealth Court shall have ancillary jurisdiction over any claim or other matter which is related to a claim or other matter otherwise within its exclusive original jurisdiction."). Stackhouse, meanwhile, agreed that only count one was within the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction but "for the sake of judicial economy" asked that the matter be remanded to the county court of common pleas. Stackhouse , 832 A.2d at 1007.

A three-Justice plurality resolved the issue by recharacterizing count one, concluding that it "rests upon the same allegations of defamation and invasion of privacy as asserted in Counts II and III." Id . at 1008. Including a count for declaratory or injunctive relief cannot "transform the complaint" from a trespass action into an action belonging within the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction. Id . Because "the core of [Stackhouse's] complaint is an action in trespass, original jurisdiction lies in the court of common pleas notwithstanding the injunctive/declaratory label attached to Count I." Id . at 1009. The plurality remarked that "permitting jurisdictional questions to turn solely upon the styling of claims within a complaint would arguably permit forum shopping through pleading." Id . at 1008 (citation omitted).

Following that rationale, the Commonwealth Court concluded that the two claims presented "squarely challenge the constitutionality of Petitioners’ sentences." Scott , 256 A.3d at 491. The panel observed that the Appellants heavily relied on precedents like Miller v. Alabama , 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012) (holding that Eighth Amendment prohibits sentencing individuals who commit crimes as juveniles to mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole) to support their petition for review. While the Appellants styled these claims in the context of seeking declaratory relief from a Commonwealth agency, that characterization did not control per the Stackhouse analysis. The Appellants "have fashioned the Petition in this manner in a thinly veiled attempt to forum shop through pleading[.]" Id . at 492, 132 S.Ct. 2455. The court concluded that the statutory exception applied and dismissed the petition.

Senior Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter dissented. Judge Leadbetter did not "read the Complaint in this case as an attack on Petitioners’ convictions or sentences, but rather as what it purports to be: a facial and as applied Eighth Amendment challenge to the provisions of the...

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