On December 16, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Neiman declared Act 152 of 2004, which significantly amended Megan’s Law, to be unconstitutional, as violating the “single subject” rule of Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Article III, Section 3 requires that all acts passed by the legislature must relate to a single unifying issue.
The problem is that Act 152 concerned several disparate subjects, amendments to Megan’s Law being one of them. In addition to amending Megan’s Law, Act 152 also concerned asbestos actions, deficiency judgment procedures, and county park police jurisdiction. How could our legislators have been so ignorant of the Pennsylvania Constitution? Appellant James Neiman attacked the constitutionality of Act 152 pursuant to Article III, Section 3, arguing that there is no possible way to reconcile the various topics of the act. The Commonwealth argued that asbestos actions, deficiency judgment procedures, county park police jurisdictions, and Megan’s Law can be reconciled, in that they all involved “civil remedies”. The General Assembly, defending the act, said that all of the subjects concern “judicial remedies and sanctions”.
The Supreme Court rejected the Commonwealth and General Assembly’s arguments, finding the connection between the subjects to be irreconcilable. As such, the act is unconstitutional. The question then becomes whether the amendments to Megan’s Law can be severed from the rest of the act. To be severed from the act and therefore constitutional, the severable portions must concern the primary purpose of the act. Neiman argued that the purpose of the act was actually to amend deficiency judgment procedures, since that was the primary purpose of the senate bill when it was introduced, with the Megan’s Law provisions only being introduced as final amendments to the bill. The Commonwealth and General Assembly countered by arguing that the Megan’s Law provisions can be easily severed, as they “are not essentially or inseparably connected with any of the other portions of Act 152, and, also, that they can operate independently of the other provisions.” The Supreme Court rejected this argument, finding that the primary purpose of Act 152 was not to amend Megan’s Law. As such, the court refused to sever the Megan’s Law provisions and declared the entirety of the act unconstitutional, but stayed its decision for 90 days so the legislature can resolve any problems arising from the act being declared unconstitutional.
While on its face the decision may seem straightforward, there are many questions that are raised. For example, several of the provisions of Act 152 have since been amended…are convictions that arose pursuant to the subsequent amendments proper, or must they be vacated? Can the legislature “go back in time” and fix the issue? Is the appropriate remedy to vacate all of the convictions in question?
Finally, the decision may not have as big of an impact as it would seem at first. Pennsylvania’s Megan’s Law was completely overhauled in 2011, with the old version being repealed and an updated version being enacted. Thus, while the 2004 version was at issue in Neiman, those convicted of violating the more recently enacted version of Megan’s Law may not be able to raise this argument. It will be interesting to see what the legislature does in the next 90 days to sort this issue out.