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Politics & Government

For Wolf, Legal Fights Result From Murky Law

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

Governor Tom Wolf is facing another legal challenge to his gubernatorial authority, less than a month into his term.

The Philadelphia district attorney’s petition to stop Wolf’s effective moratorium on the death penalty comes weeks after state Senate Republicans hauled the new administration to court for firing the Open Records director appointed by Wolf’s predecessor, Tom Corbett.

Each case has brought indignant legal filings accusing Wolf of gubernatorial overreach, but legal experts say the disputes wade into unsettled questions. 

“Issues of gubernatorial discretion are really uncharted water in Pennsylvania,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law.

Philadelphia’s top prosecutor, Seth Williams, has asked the state Supreme Court to reject Wolf’s death penalty moratorium. Wolf announced the effective moratorium last week, saying he would grant reprieves in each death penalty case at least until a task force studying capital sentencing in Pennsylvania had finished its work.

Law enforcement groups take issue with the method of Wolf’s effective moratorium. They say reprieves are must be time- and case-specific, and can’t be used as a blanket refusal to carry out the death penalty.

“If this were at the federal level, there were a lot of ways the president could do this, but the governor in Pennsylvania doesn’t have the kind of authority that the president of the United States has,” said Ledewitz. “We just haven’t structured our executive power the same way under our state constitution. We have fractured the executive power and we have limited it in lots of ways.”

Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College, said it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Pennsylvania governor is sparring with the courts and the district attorneys over carrying out the death penalty. He doubts this case will go to “knock-down, drag-out litigation.”

“I think this is something where both parties need to express their views and then try to come to some reasoned accommodation on the matter,” said Antkowiak.

Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed said the state district attorneys association is still mulling its own challenge of the governor’s moratorium-by-reprieve method.

“He does not have the power under the constitution or any statute to simply wade in and say ‘I’m granting a moratorium to everybody that’s facing execution,’” said Freed. “So in each and every case, he’ll have to grant a reprieve. And I would anticipate that there will be a challenge of this nature in each and every one of those cases when he grants the reprieve.”

Philadelphia DA Seth Williams is asking the state Supreme Court to decide whether Wolf has the authority to impose a death penalty moratorium by issuing reprieves. The court does not have to accept jurisdiction over the case.

The legal challenge over Wolf’s removal of the Office of Open Records director will go before a panel of Commonwealth Court judges in March.