The Lead

Commonwealth Court dismisses Wolf challenge to amendment that would ban abortion

By: - April 17, 2023 5:04 pm

Democratic lawmakers and abortion rights advocates rally on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Capital-Star photo)

A Commonwealth Court panel has dismissed former Gov. Tom Wolf’s challenge to a package of proposed constitutional amendments including language stating there is no constitutional right to abortion or government funded abortion.

The Republican-backed legislation, passed last summer during late-night sessions of the General Assembly, also proposed allowing candidates for governor to choose their own running mates, a requirement for voters to show identification at polling places, and creating a system for election audits.

The GOP, which lost its majority in the state House last year, has quietly dropped the abortion amendment and incorporated the voter ID and election audit proposals into another package of proposed amendments. That legislation is now before the House Judiciary Committee. 

Language for the abortion-related amendment came from a proposal introduced by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, in 2021. Democrats said the proposed amendment would create a pathway to an abortion ban across the commonwealth by removing questions about the constitutionality of such a law.

Wolf and now-former acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman sued, alleging the General Assembly did not follow the procedure for advancing a constitutional amendment because the “yea” and “nay” votes of each member were not entered in the journals of each chamber.

The five-judge panel ruled the challenge was premature because the amendment package, Senate Bill 106, had not been passed for a second time in the Legislature, as required, before going to voters in a referendum. 

The judges noted that in past challenges to constitutional amendments, the courts have not considered the claims to be ripe until the proposals were about to go to referendums or even after voters had approved them. 

“If we addressed petitioners’ claim but the subsequent General Assembly fails to pass SB 106 a second time, then we have entangled ourselves in an abstract disagreement with no apparent concrete consequences,” Judge Lori A. Dumas wrote in an 11-page opinion for the panel.

The voter ID and election audit proposals were combined in the Senate with a proposed amendment to give adult victims of sexual abuse an opening to file lawsuits against their attackers that would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations. 

House Democrats have said they will not approve the package and passed their own version of the survivors’ amendment as a standalone proposal.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.