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PA ignoring state’s Supreme Court

By Ron Evans

Reportedly, when Andrew Jackson disagreed with a decision of the Supreme Court’s chief justice, he said, “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.”

All three branches of commonwealth government are saying the equivalent regarding a ruling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made in June 2017.

Then the court ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundatio, which was suing the governor for not executing the environmental amendment to the PA Constitution.

The amendment states, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

PEDF’s suit specifically contended that the governor and Legislature were ignoring the amendment in the management of state parks and forests.

The PA Supreme Court decision in PEDF’s case clearly stated that the amendment means state lands and resources are owned by the citizens of the commonwealth in the form of a public trust.

The court ruled that the role of government at all levels is to act as a trustee of the public trust, not as proprietors, by conserving and maintaining public lands and resources.

Since the ruling, all three branches of state government have ignored the PA Supreme Court.

The governor, Legislature and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency charged with conserving and maintaining public state lands, abdicated their responsibilities as trustees, especially with the rush to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region of the state.

The governor and Legislature have not permanently banned additional drilling on public lands, even though DCNR has stated additional drilling will endanger fragile ecologies.

DCNR in its most recent plan for state forests determined that oil and gas extraction are legitimate uses of lands owned by the citizens.

This is not “conserving and maintaining” public natural resources.

In its ruling, the PA Supreme Court deemed the Oil and Gas Lease Fund can be used only to maintain and conserve public natural resources.

Starting with the Rendell administration, approximately $1.2 billion have been taken out of the public trust and diverted to the General Fund.

Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature continue to ignore the PA Supreme Court decision by diverting $61 million from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the General Fund for the 2020-21 budget.

Consequently, PEDF filed another suit specific to the diversion of Oil and Gas Lease Fund money to the General Fund.

The Commonwealth Court has ignored the decision of the PA Supreme Court by ruling that some of the Oil and Gas Lease Fund can be used to fund the operation of state departments and agencies.

Now all three branches of state government are complicit in ignoring the PA Supreme Court decision in the PEDF case.

In 1971, the Legislature passed, the governor signed, and the citizens ratified a visionary amendment to the Commonwealth’s Constitution.

In 2017, the PA Supreme Court made an unambiguous ruling mandating that government fulfill its trustee responsibilities.

However, all three branches continue to ignore the ruling. As citizens who own the public forests, we cannot allow this undemocratic challenge to a PA Supreme Court decision to persist.

Ron Evans is president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation and based in Bellefonte. For more information on PEDF’s legal actions, go to pedf.org.

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