Why the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Won’t Hear the Pittsburgh Church Property Case

As noted in my previous post on the Commonwealth Court’s recent decision in the case involving the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, I doubt that the Pennsylvanis Supreme Court will agree to hear the case in the event that the Diocese hould choose to seek further review. This case seems to present a good opportunity to discuss, at least briefly, the role that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court plays in the Commonwealth’s appellate system, and the criteria that the court applies when deciding whether or not to hear a case. When the case is evaluated in this context it is, I think, pretty clear that the matter is not worthy of further appellate review. 

As an initial matter, it is important to understand that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – like the United States Supreme Court and the highest courts of mist of the other states – is not a court of general review whose purpose is the correction of error. It is, rather,  court of limited jurisdiction, and largely has the responsibility for selection of its own docket. There are very few cases in which a party has the right to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In almost all circumstances – including the litigation involving the Diocese of Pittsburgh -the court will hear an appeal only if it has first granted permission to a party to file the appeal. This process is a reflection of the fact that the court’s role is not to correct mistakes made by intermediate appellate courts but, rather, to oversee the doctrinal development of Pennsylvania law and to assure consistency in the way that the law is applied.

All this is not to say, however, that the court makes its decisions as to what cases to hear based on whim or caprice (notwithstanding what some may believe, including many disappointed litigants). The court, rather, has clearly delineated criteria that it applies when considering requests for permission to appeal (known here in Pennsylvania as petitions for allocatur). Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear a case only if one or more of the follwoing factors is satisfied:

1. the lower court’s decision conflicts with another intermediate appellate court decision (i.e., the state equivalent of a circuit split;

2. the lower court’s decision conflicts with a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court on the same issue;

3. the question presented is one of first impression and is such ublic importance that prompt resolution by the court is necessary;

4. the issue involves the consitutionality of a statute of the Commonwealth; or

5. the lower court has so far departed from accepted judicial practices or so abused its discretion as to call for the court to exercise its supervisory authority.

The Pittsburgh case does not meet any of these standards. Indeed, categories 1, 2, 4 and 5 can be dispensed with virtually without comment. There is simply no support for an argument that the Commonwealth Court decision in the Pittsburgh case is in any way in conflict with another Commonwealth Court decision or any decision of the Superior Court, or that the decision is in conflict with a PA or US Supreme Court decision. The Commonwealth Court’s decision involved little more than the routine application of long standing principles of law. Nor is there any viable argument that the constitutionality of a state law is at stake, or that the Commonwealth grossly abused its discretion. All that’s left, then, is whether the lower court’s decision involves an issue of first impression and involves a matter of great public importance. As sympathetic as I am to the breakway diocese, the case does not satisfy this standard any more than it meets the others.

First, it bears mention that the Pittsburgh case did not involve any significant or controversial issues such as, for instance, whether a diocese of the Episcopal Church can validly withdraw from the national church. It involved, rather, a fairly routine and mundane issue concerning the interpretation of a stipulation whereby the litigation had earlier been resolved. It is hard to see how this case involvesany particularly novel issues or questions of first impression for the Pennsylvania courts. It is, furthermore, difficult to imagine why the resolution of a question regarding the proper interpretation of the parties’ earlier stipulation is a question of public importance, let alone a question of substantial import. It is, to be sure, an issue of great concern to the parties themselves, and to the parties’ respective adherents. Whether the stipulation ought to be read to vest control in one or the other of the parties to the litigation, however, is hardly a question of public importance, given that broader issues such, such as the right of a subunit of a denominational church to withdraw from the denomination under Pennsylvania law is not at issue. As such, it does not seem to me that there is any likelihood that the Pennsylvania Sypreme Court will, or should, hear the case.

Since the date of my initial post, I have been informed that the break away diocese intends to seek a rehearing of the case before the full Commonwealth Court. Whether this request will be granted is a wholly separate question. This move makes sense to me, though, since, given the foregoing, I expect that they have a far better chance at obtaining a favorable result through a rehearing than through a petition to the PA Supreme Court, unless they can somehow frame the case as involving questions of broader import.

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