Pennsylvania Supreme Court Won’t Fast-Track Hearing for Proposed Abortion Amendment

Pro-lifers scored a momentary win this week as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided against bypassing the Commonwealth Court and hearing a case against a proposed constitutional amendment. 

The Pennsylvania Family Institute and the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia were among organizations that filed amicus briefs with the majority-Democrat Supreme Court urging that Governor Tom Wolf (D) should first take his case to the Republican-controlled lower court. In that forum, judges will rule on the validity of a proposed amendment stating that the commonwealth does not confer a constitutional right to abortion.

Wolf is arguing that an abortion-related amendment cannot be advanced via a bill containing other proposed measures to require voter identification and auditor-general-led election reviews. Should the judiciary find the anti-abortion measure and other amendments legitimate, both legislative chambers will need to pass the bill again in the next session and the policies will then go before the voters to decide in referenda.

“#ProLife Win!,” the anti-abortion Society of St. Sebastian tweeted. “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Gov. Wolf’s request to challenge the Legislature’s passage of a bill that would amend the state constitution to recognize there is NO right to abortion.”

The Commonwealth Court is the statewide judicial body that decides disputes between government actors and institutions. Wolf asked the Supreme Court to use the highly discretionary “King’s Bench” power to take up the matter itself. Under the King’s Bench concept, which originated in England and became part of pre-revolutionary Pennsylvania law in the 17th century, the high court may take up a major case without lower-court consideration when timeliness is deemed imperative. 

Pennsylvania’s justices receive frequent requests to use this prerogative but rarely do so. One high-profile case in which the power was successfully invoked was the 2018 decision to free Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill, who served prison time for parole violations stemming from earlier drug, gun, and assault charges. 

Abortion opponents and supporters of voter-ID requirements might find only a temporary win in the Supreme Court’s recent decision. If the conservative Commonwealth Court rules that the amendment process can go forward, an appeal will almost certainly take the matter back to the high court, which Democrats control 5 to 2. 

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices” by PA Courts. 


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