PA Commonwealth Court Hears Arguments in Act 13 Lawsuit

Arguments in the lawsuit brought by seven Pennsylvania townships and a handful of individuals against the state over newly passed drilling legislation known as Act 13 were heard in PA Commonwealth Court yesterday in Harrisburg. The towns are suing to overturn a portion of the Act 13 law which eliminates most of zoning rights of PA towns when it comes to zoning oil and gas drilling (see this MDN story for background).

So how did it go? Depends on who you ask.

Here’s how SewickleyPatch reports it:

Cecil attorney John Smith, who represents the communities, doctor and nonprofit making the challenge, said Wednesday afternoon that the proceeding went as well as can be expected—and added that the courtroom was standing-room only.

“The president judge understood and framed our argument,” he said of the hearing, adding that the questions asked “mimicked” concerns raised in the challenge.

Smith said Judge Patricia A. McCullough specifically asked the state about incidents involving fires and spills at well sites in Mt. Pleasant Township—and inquired about how the municipality should protect itself now under Act 13.

All in all?

“It’s all you can expect at this point in the proceedings,” Smith said. (1)

And here’s how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the exchange with lawyer Smith:

John Smith, the first of three attorneys representing the group to speak this morning, was only able to get a few sentences into his remarks before the seven judges began to pepper him — and later the other lawyers — with critiques.

Mr. Smith and other counsel defended their claim that allowing drilling activities in areas the state proscribed will make it difficult for local governments to protect their residents’ health and safety as constitutionally required.

They also argued that the law treats the drilling industry as a special class, allowing them procedural privileges in permitting and land use that others do not have.

Lawyers for the commonwealth replied that municipalities do not have a constitutionally protected right to zoning, and that those powers can be altered by the Legislature as they see fit. (2)

In the end, representatives of the towns suing seemed happy with the days proceedings:

"I think it went rather well for us today," said Cecil Township supervisor Andy Schrader, who attended the proceedings.

He lauded the attorneys handling the challenge for Cecil and the other communities.

Robinson Township Supervisor Brian Coppolla, who attended along with Schrader, agreed.

"The judges really grilled our attorneys, and they were able to answer all of their questions," he said, adding that wasn’t the case with the attorneys representing the state—they seemed to be "fumbling for words."

"The other side did not look happy when we left," Coppola said. (1)

Even though an anti-drilling group with no clear stake in the issue was allowed to be part of the lawsuit and the court disallowed industry representatives from joining the suit on the side of the state, the court did allow industry reps “a few minutes” to address the court.

When will this case be decided? It normally takes a few months for a decision, but both sides agreed they think a decision may come much sooner.

(1) Sewickley (PA) SewickleyPatch (Jun 7, 2012) – Court Hears Arguments in Act 13 Challenge

(2) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Jun 6, 2012) – Act 13 lawsuit argued in Commonwealth Court