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Wolf takes lawsuit on constitutional changes to lower court

Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
Matt Rourke
Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is taking another shot at a lawsuit that argues Republican lawmakers improperly bundled together five proposed state constitutional amendments to get them approved by the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Wolf's new lawsuit filed late last week in Commonwealth Court is similar to the litigation he previously tried to get the state Supreme Court to take up directly, and comes less than two weeks after the justices said no but that the governor was free to sue in the lower Commonwealth Court.

Wolf, whose first version was brought in July, argues that combining the five proposed amendments runs afoul of state constitutional rules that prevent bundling changes with multiple, unrelated topics.

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House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman defended the approach, saying passage of the bill this summer "met every legislative and constitutional standard and we continue to believe the bill passes constitutional muster.”

Wolf's new filings argue the Legislature violated the procedures for recording votes when amending the constitution and that “nothing less than an independent vote on each and every proposed change to the constitution” is required.

“The bundling of the amendments was calculated to shield Republican lawmakers from scrutiny of their positions on the various amendments,” Wolf's lawyers wrote, “particularly the General Assembly's attempt to annul constitutional rights relating to abortion.”

One of the proposed amendments would state the Pennsylvania Constitution does not guarantee any rights relating to abortion or public funding of abortions. Wolf and his acting secretary of state, Leigh Chapman, are claiming that alone is “deceptively compound” and would require two separate votes.

“The existence of a constitutional right to abortion does not necessarily mandate public funding for the procedure,” according to one of legal filings Wolf made on Friday. “The propositions are independent and can and must stand alone.”

Wolf has vetoed legislative Republicans' other bills seeking limits to abortion access.

He also claims the proposals would change “multiple existing constitutional provisions” without sufficiently notifying voters.

Other aspects of the bundled amendments bill would require all voters to show IDs, let gubernatorial candidates choose their own running mates, give lawmakers a way to cancel regulations without facing a veto and establish election audits by the state auditor general.

Amendments need to pass both chambers in two consecutive two-year sessions before going before voters for the final say. The bundle of five amendments has passed both the state House and Senate in the current session, along largely partisan lines, and could get a second round of votes early next year.

If they are again approved by majorities of lawmakers, they could be placed on the May 16 primary ballot as five separate questions. A sixth question, allowing a two-year window of litigation over child sexual abuse claims that are otherwise too old to pursue, also may be on the ballot next year.