Federal Judge John Jones’ Opinion on the Constitutionality of Harrisburg’s Receivership
In June 2011, five members of Harrisburg City Council, the City Controller, and City Treasurer filed a complaint in Federal Court declaring that the Pennsylvania State “takeover” legislation was unconstitutional. This suit was previously filed by various citizens, but was dismissed before the merits of the case were heard because the Judge found the Plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case to Court.
As “elected officials,” these new Plaintiffs had hoped to overcome that issue.
In the preceding case, Judge John Jones III had determined the “citizen” Plaintiffs didn’t have standing in Federal Court because they had failed to sufficiently show harm of Receivership on themselves as citizens of the City. “An objective review of the statutory language clearly reveals that the Amendments and the Recovery Plan limit the rights and authority of the municipality––the City of Harrisburg––and not the citizens of Harrisburg themselves.”
Nor did the Judge feel the Plaintiffs proved that their right to represent all Harrisburg citizens or its government. Basically, the Judge declared if the City’s government had wanted to file a lawsuit against the City’s takeover, then it had grounds in Court. Individual citizens do not because as the Court saw it, it is the government who had had its rights taken away, not the citizens. His May 2, 2012 Court order stated:
We cannot but conclude that Plaintiffs’ standing arguments and entire cause of action are nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to litigate, on behalf of their municipal government, a case which Harrisburg’s City Council and Mayor quite obviously do not wish the City to initiate. It speaks volumes that entirely missing from the Plaintiffs’ argument is any mention of the undisputed fact that the City of Harrisburg has itself declined to challenge any aspect of Act 47, the Amendments, or the Recovery Plan. The critical point remains that the legislation challenged by the Plaintiffs does not limit the rights of the Plaintiffs, or even the rights of the citizens of Harrisburg at large, but instead limits the rights and authority of the municipality itself.
As taxpayers, the Judge concluded, citizens of the City of Harrisburg are not imposed upon because the Receiver does not have the power to raise taxes directly and any harm the Plaintiffs argued would come from a raise in taxes is “speculative.”
And on the issue of the argument that Receivership of Harrisburg is racist, Judge Jones stated that’s “unfounded.” He wrote, “We admonish Plaintiffs that such incendiary statements are, in the Court’s view, both abhorrent and unhelpful.”
In closing, the Judge recognized the Plaintiffs meant well, but asserted that opening the “floodgates” of permitting citizens to step into the shoes of their municipal governments because they are “disgruntled” would undermine “democratic policy and political authority.”
Fast forward to January 9, 2013.
In this second and separate complaint against the Receivership brought on by a variety of City of Harrisburg elected officials, Judge Jones concluded that as elected officials, they do not have the authority to bring this complaint. Again, calling the Plaintiffs “well intentioned,” he decided that a City Council resolution had to have been passed to grant such authority or the agreement of the Mayor had to be had. He said it didn’t count, “simply because they happen to be elected officials.” Judge Jones stated they misunderstood the point of his earlier opinion in his previous judgement against the previous Plaintiffs. Thus, he found that the City Councilors, the City Controller, and the City Treasurer, too, had no standing and proved no harm to themselves.
The Judge went further to say that if the Plaintiffs have an argument with the Receiver law, they should take it to the Commonwealth Court: “Notwithstanding that proceeding, nothing prevents the appropriate plaintiffs from either initiating a declaratory judgment action or seeking injunctive relief in the courts of the Commonwealth which are, undeniably, better equipped to address the difficult state law questions presented by this litigation.” It is not the Federal Court’s desire to enter “these murky areas of state law,” Jones wrote.
And with that, the Federal Court is no longer deliberating the State of Pennsylvania’s Receiver Law in the case of the City of Harrisburg, the first Pennsylvania municipality to be in Receivership.