By: Samuel T. Ross a-k-a (Sam Ross)
To all those concerned with Decarcerating PA, I encourage you to investigate into the legal reasoning of the Pa. Supreme Court`s explanation of the PCRA time-bar being constitutional in Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 722 A.2d 638 (Pa. 1998).
By now, almost everyone concerned with criminal law may be familiar with the PCRA statute`s time-bar jurisdictional limitation prohibiting review of claims raised on collateral attack after one year of the final judgement. See: 42 Pa. C.S. sec. 9545.
It has been 19 years since the Pa. Supreme Court ruled that the PCRA time-bar was constitutional in the Peterkin case. Relying upon one of its very old cases, Sayers v. Commonwealth, the Pa. Supreme Court concluded that the PCRA time-bar was a reasonable limitation and is constitutional. Still I have not came across any case law, have not read any articles, and have not heard about any lawyers inquiring into the court`s legal reasoning as to `why` the PCRA time-bar is constitutional.
Why was the the PCRA`s jurisdictional `time-bar` ruled constitutional? To reach an answer, we must first look to that very old case law cited by the Pa. Supreme Court in the Peterkin case to support its legal reasoning.
In Sayers, the court held that a statute of limitation placing a 20 day limitation on the filing of a `Writ of Error` was a reasonable limitation and was constitutional. Its legal reasoning was: “The Constitution then, having given a writ of error with or without cause, in a certain class of criminal cases, as of a writ of right, has the legislature the power to control and regulate it? It is conceded that the right may not be denied, nor may its exercise be unreasonably obstructed or interfered with. But may not the legislature fix return-days, and provide for a speedy hearing? This court has already done so, by virtue of its inherent power to control its business, and we have no doubt our action was in entire harmony with the Constitution. If the time of returning the writ, or of the hearing upon it, may be limited by rule of court of Act of Assembly, why may not the time be limited during which the writ may issue of course, provided such limitation be reasonable? If the legislature may fix no limitation whatever upon the issuing of such writs, it is too much to say that capital punishment cannot be hereafter enforced in Pennsylvania.” Sayers v. Commonwealth, 88 Pa. 291, 307 (1879).
The Sayers court explained its legal reasoning of reasonableness by stating that “The Act of 1877 is a statue of limitation so far as it fixes a limit to the time within which a writ or error may issue of course. … He can readily issue it within twenty days as within twenty months; and if for any sufficient reason the twenty days have been allowed to pass, any one of the justices of this court has the power to allow the writ. It would be his clear duty to do so if the case presented any merits. We are of opinion that the act is constitutional. Nor is it open to criticism upon other grounds. It denies no man`s right. It imposes no hardship upon any defendant” Sayers v. Commonwealth, at 309.
In Sayers, the court was addressing a very serious problem in which prisoners who were sentenced to death would strategically file a `Writ of Error` to stop all legal proceedings for a year and would then escape from prison before that year was up. Mind you, at that time, prison was not as secured by big buildings with locked doors, gates with barb wires and heavy artillery. If you`ve seen the movie “Life`, then you have a vision of what prison was like back then.
In Peterkin, the court explained, not held, that the time-bar one year limitation on jurisdiction to review cases presented under the PCRA to collateral attack final judgements was constitutional. Its legal reasoning relied upon the Sayers court statement made on page 307 (See: above). Commonwealth v. Peterkin, 722 A.2d 638, 642 (Pa. 1998). The court explained its legal reasoning of reasonableness by stating that: “The purpose of law is not to provide convicted criminals with the means to escape well deserved sanctions, but to provide a reasonable opportunity for those who have been wrongly convicted to demonstrate the injustice of their conviction. The current PCRA places time limitations on such claims of error, and in so doing, strikes a reasonable balance between Society`s need for finality in criminal cases and the convicted person`s need to demonstrate that there has been an error in the proceedings that resulted in his conviction.”. Commonwealth v. Peterkin, at page 643.
In Peterkin, the court was addressing an individual who already had the benefit of having 44 issues heard under the PCRA, and was challenging whether the PCRA statute`s time-bar prohibiting review of his habeas corpus petition was unconstitutional under the Pa. Constitution which provided the right to a habeas corpus. The case had nothing to do with United States Constitutional Rights or other Rights provided under the Pa. Constitution.
In Sayers, the limitation was a statute of limitation that provided the court with jurisdiction to review the writ after the time had passed provided there was any sufficient reason. In Peterkin, the limitation is a jurisdictional limitation that deprives the court of jurisdiction to review a case after the time had passed and provided only three limited exceptions that had their own 60 day limitation along with other hurdles that had to be satisfied in order to be entitled to the exceptions.
The legal reasoning in the Sayers case regarding a statute of limitation does not support the legal conclusion in the Peterkin case regarding a jurisdictional limitation. The two are absolutely different. A statute of limitation may thus be waived, or excused by rules, such as equitable tolling, that alleviate hardship and unfairness as recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Bowles v. Russell, 127 S.Ct. 2360, 2369; 551 U.S. 205, 218 (U.S. 2007). This alleviation of hardship and unfairness was also recognized and provided by the Sayers court. A jurisdictional limitation does not provide equitable exceptions as also recognized by the United States Supreme Court which stated, “If a limit is taken to be the jurisdictional, waiver becomes impossible and meritorious excuse irrelevant (unless the statute so provides). Bowles v. Russel at page 2368.
Certainly, if the United States Supreme Court acknowledges the high risk of labeling a limitation as jurisdictional, of course the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was also aware. By the way, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has also ruled in other cases that the PCRA statute does not provide any equitable exceptions. So it is fair to say, they were conscious that the time-bar would welcome hardship imposed upon defendants and undermine fundamental fairness.
In concluding this article, lets be clear on something, and that is when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the Peterkin case quoted part of the reasoning from the Sayers case, excluding the part about the judges having a clear duty to grant the writ if the case presented any merits, they were being deceptive and wanted to quickly publish something to say the time-bar was constitutional in a case where United States Constitutional rights was not even an issue.
Here we are 19 years later and there are thousands of cases where errors committed by lawyers that have deprived defendants of a collateral remedy for injuries done to his or her liberty interest are tolerated. There are thousands of cases where defendants are being deprived of their life and liberty without due process, without any proof beyond a reasonable doubt that they actually committed a crime. There are thousands of cases where defendants are being forced to serve illegal and unconstitutional violations and illegal restraints.
To Decarcerate Pennsylvania, the People has to dethrone all Legislatures and Judges who undermines our life and liberty interest by tolerating constitutional violations upon constitutional violations of our rights which the constitution itself does not tolerate. The legislatures have the power to amend the PCRA statute if they want to provide justice and fairness in Pennsylvania. The Judges need to know that the people are aware of their dishonorable service to justice and fairness.