Seeton v. Pennsylvania Game Com'n, 6 MAP 2005.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation937 A.2d 1028
Docket NumberNo. 6 MAP 2005.,6 MAP 2005.
PartiesJohnna SEETON, Appellant v. PENNSYLVANIA GAME COMMISSION, Appellee.
Decision Date27 December 2007

Gordon Alan Einhorn, Harrisburg, for Johnna Seeton, appellant.

Richard Douglas Sherman, Harrisburg, for Pennsylvania Game Commission, appellee.



Justice BAER.1

Appellant Johnna Seeton filed in the Commonwealth Court a Complaint in Mandamus alleging that the Pennsylvania Game Commission (Commission) improperly concluded that it lacked authority to interfere with what she alleged were the Tioga Boar Hunt Preserve's (Tioga) ongoing violations of the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code, 34 Pa.C.S. §§ 101, et seq. (Game and Wildlife Code). She asked the Commonwealth Court to reject the Commission's claim that it lacks jurisdiction over Tioga and hold that the Commission's own regulations as well as its statutory mandate require enforcement of the relevant provisions against Tioga. The Commonwealth Court denied Seeton relief on the basis that the Commission's interpretations of its own administrative provisions were not inconsistent with the Game and Wildlife Code and therefore are entitled to a court's deference. Because we find that the Commission's interpretation of its own regulation is inconsistent with its plain language and irreconcilable with the legislative intent manifest in the Game and Wildlife Code, we reverse.

According to the Commission, Tioga "is in the business of selling `canned hunts' in which customers pay a fee to shoot and kill an animal in an enclosed area which limits the ability of the animal to escape and the amount of pursuit in which the customer must engage." Brief for Commission at 7. Seeton contends that "[a]nimals used in canned hunts are often drugged, tied to stakes or lured to feeding stations in order to further assure that the `hunter' will get the guaranteed kill that has been promised by the hunting preserve's proprietor." Complaint in Mandamus at 2, ¶ 6.

This controversy began when Seeton, a resident of Dauphin County, initiated a correspondence with the Pennsylvania Game Commission seeking to compel enforcement against the Preserve, which Seeton averred serially violated provisions of the Game and Wildlife Code. By responsive letter, the Commission's Chief Counsel rejected Seeton's contention that the animals hunted at the Preserve, including wild boar,2 were "protected mammals" pursuant to the Commission's regulations promulgated under the Game and Wildlife Code. See 58 Pa.Code § 133.1.3 In particular, the Commission observed that the term "wild mammals" as used in § 133.1 is defined nowhere in the Game and Wildlife Code or the Commission's regulations. The Commission, resorting to a dictionary definition of the word "wild," thus opined that "wild mammals" must apply only to "mammals that are currently living in a state of nature," Commission Letter to Seeton, 4/29/03 (internal quotation marks omitted), which "excludes mammals that are currently living in a state of captivity, either in pens or within enclosures." Id. Because the animals at the Preserve are kept within enclosures, the Commission concluded that they are not "wild" for purposes of the Game and Wildlife Code and regulations issued thereunder; rather, they are "the personal property of their owners." Id.

On October 14, 2004, Seeton filed a Complaint in Mandamus in the Commonwealth Court in its original jurisdiction. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1) (providing original jurisdiction in the Commonwealth Court of civil actions against the Commonwealth). She averred that she had taxpayer standing pursuant to this Court's decision in In re Application of Biester, 487 Pa. 438, 409 A.2d 848 (1979) (granting taxpayers standing to challenge government action where no one is better situated to challenge that action and it will otherwise evade judicial review). The Commission, she argued, is an arm of Pennsylvania's executive branch and receives public funding from the sale of timber on game lands owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Thus, per In re Biester, where the Commission's action will otherwise go unchallenged, it is subject to challenge by Seeton in her capacity as a Pennsylvania taxpayer.

In her Complaint, Seeton averred that the Commission is aware of Tioga's ongoing violations of the Game and Wildlife Code, including the restraint and drugging or luring of prey to facilitate a kill by a hunter who has paid for the privilege. She further asserted that the wild boar hunted at Tioga are "protected mammals" under the Game and Wildlife Code and the Commission's regulations. Because "protected mammals" may be hunted only pursuant to express provisions of the Game and Wildlife Code or the Commission's regulations, see 58 Pa.Code § 133.1, and because neither the Game and Wildlife Code nor the Commission's regulations authorize the hunting of boar, Seeton asserted that Tioga is in violation of § 133.1.

The Commission filed Preliminary Objections to Seeton's Complaint in Mandamus. First, the Commission challenged Seeton's standing to bring the complaint in the first instance. The Commission contended that Seeton had no interest in the litigation exceeding that of any other member of the public.

In the alternative, the Commission defended the claim on the merits in much the same terms as it had in its prior correspondence with Seeton. Specifically, it argued that "canned hunts" on private property fall outside the Commission's "realm of regulation" because no animal can be "wild" that is "contained on private property within fenced enclosures." Preliminary Objections at 2, ¶ 6. It emphasized that its interpretation of the Game Code is entitled to administrative deference. Id. at 2, ¶ 7. It further averred that mandamus is an inappropriate mechanism, as it characterized Seeton's claim, "to compel the [Commission] to interpret the Game [and Wildlife Code]" as Seeton would prefer. Id. at 2, ¶ 9.

The Commonwealth Court began its ruling by rejecting the Commission's argument that Seeton lacked standing. The court acknowledged the undisputed point that Seeton lacked traditional standing, which requires a showing of a substantial individual interest in the matter, see William Penn Parking Garage, Inc., v. City of Pittsburgh, 464 Pa. 168, 346 A.2d 269 (1975), but ruled that Seeton had demonstrated standing pursuant to this Court's decision in In re Biester, 487 Pa. 438, 409 A.2d 848 (1979). Specifically, the court noted that neither Tioga nor its clients have any incentive to challenge the Commission's alleged non-enforcement of the Wildlife and Game Code, because they benefit from that non-enforcement. Thus, the court determined that Seeton had standing because the challenge might otherwise evade judicial review.

The Commonwealth Court, however, rejected Seeton's challenge on the merits. The court found tenable Seeton's interpretation that wild boar are "protected mammals" subject to the Commission's protection under 58 Pa.Code § 133.1, but it found equally tenable the Commission's interpretation that the term "protected mammals," which includes "wild mammals" under § 133.1, does not apply to wild boar contained in enclosures, because by definition a penned animal cannot be "wild." Finding both interpretations "reasonable" under the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, the court determined that it was bound to defer to the Commission's account. See Bethenergy Mines, Inc., v. Dep't of Envtl. Protection, 676 A.2d 711 (Pa.Cmwlth.1996). Accordingly, it denied Seeton relief.

Before this Court, the Commission renews its challenge to Seeton's standing to bring this claim, which we take up as a preliminary question going to this matter's justiciability.4 In In re Biester, this Court, applying its decision in William Penn Parking Garage, observed that traditional standing requires petitioner to demonstrate a substantial, direct, and immediate interest in the outcome of the suit surpassing the common interest of all citizens in procuring obedience to the law. In re Biester, 409 A.2d at 851. We recognized, however, that "[c]ertain cases exist which grant standing to taxpayers where their interest arguably does not meet the [above] requirements of Wm. Penn." Id. at 852. "[I]n those cases . . . , the granting of standing where the degree of causal connection between the action complained of and the injury alleged is small, can be explained by the policy behind granting taxpayers standing." Id. The "fundamental reason for granting standing" in such cases "is simply that otherwise a large body of governmental activity would be unchallenged in the courts." Id. (quoting Faden v. Phila. Housing Auth., 424 Pa. 273, 227 A.2d 619, 621-22 (1967)). Thus, taxpayer standing may be granted when it "ensure[s] . . . judicial review which would otherwise not occur," a circumstance that arises where "those directly and immediately affected by the complained of expenditures are beneficially affected as opposed to adversely affected." Id.

In Seeton's initial action before the Commonwealth Court, she alleged that, absent her challenge, "the refusal of the Game Commission to take action against Tioga will otherwise go unchallenged," id. at 4, ¶ 18; that she "has no alternative channels for redress other than [the Commonwealth] Court," id. at 4, ¶ 21; and that, "[o]n information and belief, there are no other persons better situated than Petitioner to assert the claim raised herein." Id. at 4, ¶ 23. Thus, she contended, she had standing pursuant to In re Biester.5

In response, the Commission failed entirely to address Seeton's contentions regarding standing under the analysis prescribed by In re Biester, relying instead on its conclusory suggestion that Seeton had no peculiar interest in the matter. Thus, it failed to respond to Seeton's assertions by identifying who would...

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