Gov. Corbett may have taken a shuffle-step to his left on gay rights this week, but he continues to pay the price for his past sins. Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court smacked down -- or maybe fracked down -- a key section of the 2012 law on gas-drilling that was signed by Corbett after it was pushed through the legislature by his GOP allies.
In a 4-2 vote, with Republican Justice Ronald Castille, the former Philadelphia DA, crossing over to vote with the three Democratic state Supremes, the state's highest court rulled that Act 13's key provision, preventing local governments from using their zoning laws to prevent or regulate fracking activities, is unconstitutional.
The verdict was something that's rarely been seen around these parts recently: A big win for environmentalists. As Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for the group Earthjustice, told Pennlive.com: "These local decision-makers know what’s best for their towns. Not powerful oil and gas companies, nor their bought-and-paid-for state politicians.”
But what was truly remarkable is that in their majority ruling, the justices actually went to the same place that I went last year in arguing that -- while not politically possible -- there are legitimate grounds to consider Corbett's impeachment. The court found the fracking law didn't pass muster with language in the Pennsylvania Constitution stating unambiguously that citizens of the Keystone State have a right to clean air and clean water.
Wrote the majority:
“Act 13’s primary stated purpose is not to effectuate the constitutional obligation to protect and preserve Pennsylvania’s natural environment. Rather, the purpose of the statute is to provide a maximally favorable environment for industry operators to exploit Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas resources, including those in the Marcellus Shale Formation.”
That's a strikingly progressive stand for a traditionally conservative state. The justices even referenced the state's sad history of environmental exploitation that stretches back to John D. Rockefeller and America's first oil rush of the 19th Century:
“That Pennsylvania deliberately chose a course different from virtually all of its sister states speaks to the Commonwealth’s experience of having the benefit of vast natural resources whose virtually unrestrained exploitation, while initially a boon to investors, industry, and citizens, led to destructive and lasting consequences not only for the environment but also for the citizens’ quality of life."
Although the narrow impact of this ruling is very important, and could lead to more sensible fracking practices across the state, the court's broader reasoning seems to open other. just-as-important legal doors. Many have argued that the other defining policy legacy of the Corbett era -- the relentless undermining of public schools in a push for more charters and voucher-like benefits -- is also fundamentally unconstitutional.
Just as Pennsylvania's bedrock document promises a clean environment, it also mandates "the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth." The state Constitution also bars using public dollars to support "sectarian schools," yet the Corbett-backed "voucher lite" program known as EITC does exactly that. It would be great to see the high court rule on these matters, too.
But the real import of the ruling may be this: On the eve of a critical election year, Pennsylvania just took a sudden left turn. Who saw that coming?