Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Interpreting the Pennsylvania Uniformity Clause

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Interpreting the Pennsylvania Uniformity Clause

Article excerpt


Since Justice Brennan touched off a purported rebirth of the state courts as the protectors of the people,(1) academics have been debating whether collected flickers of state court activity constitute a genuine trend.(2) While the substantive effect of the so-called new judicial federalism is a matter of much debate, there is some concurrence that the state courts have increasingly recognized state constitutions as independent guarantees of individual rights.(3) Nevertheless, the state courts still seem to struggle to define themselves and their role as co-equal participants in the national governmental system.

State courts have relied upon their state constitutions to render decisions different from the federal rulings of the United States Supreme Court.(4) However, whether state courts are approaching issues with a new seriousness of analysis and independence of thought, as opposed to relying on state constitutions simply to justify disagreement with the United States Supreme Court on rights issues, remains an open question. State courts can only sustain the intellectual legitimacy of their rejection of federal constitutional doctrine in individual rights cases if they exercise such independent judgment consistently.

Though arriving a little late at the new judicial federalism party,(5) the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is among those that have reasserted their autonomy. In Commonwealth v. Edmunds,(6) Pennsylvania's highest court signaled its intent to analyze its own state constitutional provisions independently through an examination of four criteria: "1) text of the Pennsylvania constitutional provision; 2) history of the provision, including Pennsylvania case-law; 3) related case-law from other states; [and] 4) policy considerations, including unique issues of state and local concern, and applicability within modern Pennsylvania jurisprudence."(7) The court stated: "Although we may accord weight to federal decisions where they `are found to be logically persuasive and well reasoned ...,' we are free to reject the conclusions of the United States Supreme Court so long as we remain faithful to the minimum guarantees established by the United States Constitution."(8) As one of its own members has repeatedly noted, however, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not been consistent in exercising such authority.(9) "And still we wonder why our courts often are criticized for being like little puppies who chase their own tails rather than run forward."(10)

It is too soon to proclaim the new judicial federalism a success in restoring the importance of state constitutions to their rightful place as protectors of the rights and interests of the people. Certainly some state courts have demonstrated new vigor with respect to hot button issues that capture the imagination and attention of the media and legal scholars. For supporters of the new judicial federalism to claim victory, however, the evaluation of state constitutional case law must go further than the cases that make for good press. For the new judicial federalism to be legitimized as more than a hollow trend, state court jurisprudence must be scrutinized with respect to the more mundane provisions of state constitutions as well.

The purpose of this Comment is to examine whether the new judicial federalism theory holds true for one such state constitutional provision that addresses issues of demonstrated importance to the citizenry: equality and taxation. The Comment will examine the history and evolution of the Pennsylvania Constitution's uniformity clause, which requires that all taxes be uniform upon the same class of subjects.(11) Taxation is not a subject that excites the passions of many scholars or judges; however, the history of the uniformity clause shows it to be a powerful expression of the meaning of equality to the people of Pennsylvania. Moreover, how the uniformity clause is interpreted impacts the lives and livelihoods of the majority of Pennsylvania's citizens. …

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