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Landmark Decisions

Throughout the Supreme Court's 300-year history it has issued rulings that have affected the citizens of the Commonwealth and helped change the legal landscape in the country. The landmark cases included on this page are some of the most influential and consequential in the Court's history. 

CJTaft.jpg

Photo portrait of U.S. Chief Justice William Howard Taft in his judicial robe.  c.1921

Library of Congress

"We whose past covers only 132 years feel strongly the honor of (recognizing) the bi-centennial of that more venerable court, the members of which grace this presence, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. A court which has contributed to the jurisprudence of this country through Judges like McKean, Tilghman, John Bannister Gibson and George Sharswood, and in the strength and wealth of whose judgments the genius and learning of Andrew Hamilton, Dallas, Binney, Sergeant, Rawle, the Ingersolls and a host of others of the country's greatest lawyers are manifest, may well command the admiration, pride and profound respect, not only of Pennsylvanians, but of all Americans."

William Howard Taft -

27th President of the United States

10th Chief Justice of the United States

1. The Olmstead Affair cases (1782-1809) arose from the capture of a British military ship and competing claims to ownership of the ship.  The claims were contested in state and federal courts for more than thirty years, both the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court issued decisions, and those decisions first defined the boundaries between federal and state power under the US Constitution.  The ultimate outcome was that federal supremacy was enshrined as a central tenet of American constitutional law.

2. Republica v. Negro Betsey (1789) freed three children born to an enslaved mother based upon application of Pennsylvania’s novel 1780 anti-slavery law.  This was an important case in the national development of anti-slavery jurisprudence.

Justice George Bryan: In this case, I confess, that hitherto I have agreed in opinion with The Chief Justice; but I now unite with my brothers Atlee and Rush, upon this principle, that it was in the power of Samuel Moore to have secured the service of the Negroes in question; and, having omitted to do so, he cannot, on the one hand, take advantage of his own negligence; nor, on the other, will an ignorance of the law excuse him. The tenth section of the Act of Assembly seems, indeed, inaccurate and insensible; but, as upon a clause of so obscure a kind. I would not wish to press an argument against liberty, I must declare my voice to be in favor of the discharge of the Negroes.

By The Court: Let the Negroes be discharged.

3. Hubley’s Lessee v. White (1796) approved judicial review seven years before Marbury v. Madison. A related case is Eakin v. Raub (1825), in which Pennsylvania's Chief Justice John Bannister Gibson wrote a dissent that is regarded as the most effective critique of judicial review in American history. Chief Justice Gibson would later go on to distance himself from his earlier critique of judicial review in Eakin.

I adhere to the opinion which I have frequently expressed, that when a judge is convinced, beyond doubt, that an act has been passed in violation of the constitution, he is bound to declare it void, by his oath, by his duty to the party who has brought the cause before him, and to the people, the only source of legitimate power.

Chief Justice William Tilghman, Majority Opinion

Eakin v. Raub (1825) 12 Serg. & Rawle 330

For these reasons, I am of opinion, that it rests with the people, in whom full and absolute sovereign power resides, to correct abuses in legislation, by instructing their representatives to repeal the obnoxious act.

Justice John Bannister Gibson, Dissenting

4. Burginhofen v. Martin (1803) first recognized and explained the Supreme Court’s King’s Bench power, which provides the Court with a sweeping right to quickly review and decide matters of significant public importance.

It is justly taken for granted by the counsel in this court, that we possess the power of examining the proceedings of justices of the peace, in cases where the demand is under 40s., though the law does not give the party an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. This point was solemnly determined by Kinzey, Chief Just. many years ago, on a suit brought by Samuel Hasell, treasurer of the city corporation, on a bye law for measuring grain. The jurisdiction of superior courts, is only abridged by the express negative (fn. a1) words of a statute. To prevent gross injustice in a variety of instances, the power of reviewing the acts of inferior tribunals must necessarily be exercised by the Supreme Court.

fn a1: B. R. is not ousted of its jurisdiction but by express words, as where a statute says, such a mat'er shall finally be determined by the Quarter Sessions only, and that no other court shall intermeddle, certiorari lies notwithstanding these negative words. 2 Burr. 1042. 1 Bl. Rep. 231. T. Jon. 53. Sav. 134.

Chief Justice Edward Shippen IV

Burginhofen v. Martin, 3 Yeates 479

5. Commonwealth v. Holloway (1816) granted freedom to a child who was born in Pennsylvania to an escaped slave and, like Republica v. Negro Betsey, was an important, early anti-slavery precedent.  At issue was Pennsylvania’s famous 1780 law that abolished the perpetual servitude of the children of slave mothers.  Rejecting a claim that granting freedom to such children would violate the United States Constitution, Chief Justice William Tilghman said of the Pennsylvania law: “Thus far the act is too clear and too positive to admit of a doubt, nor can it be denied, that the State of Pennsylvania had a right to give freedom to every person within her territory, however impolitic the extreme exercise of that right might have been, considering the situation of some of her sister states[.]”

6. Commonwealth v. Wolf (1817) interpreted Article I, Section III of the Pennsylvania Constitution to grant broad religious liberty consistent with the beliefs of William Penn and held that such liberties could be infringed only when societal interests “of the utmost moment” are involved.

7. Commonwealth v. Carlisle (1821) rejected the prevailing jurisprudence that all combinations of employees were illegal conspiracies and became a leading national precedent for the authority of employees to unionize.

“Where the act is lawful for an individual, it can be the subject of a conspiracy, when done in concert, only where there is a direct intention that injury shall result from it, or where the object is to benefit the conspirators to the prejudice of the public or the oppression of individuals, and where such prejudice or oppression is the natural and necessary consequence.”

Justice John Bannister Gibson, Brightly, N. P. 36

8. McCandless v. McWha (1853) rejected strict liability and required a finding of negligence to impose liability against a physician and helped to create the modern law of medical malpractice.

strict liability (1844). Liability that does not depend on proof of negligence or intent to do harm but that is based instead on a duty to compensate the harms proximately caused by the activity or behavior subject to the liability rule. - Black's Law Dictionary, Tenth Ed.

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Photo of destruction caused by the Johnstown Flood.  c.1889

Library of Congress

9. Robb v. Carnegie Bros. (1891), decided in the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, marked a pivotal turn in American tort law, diverging from industrial interests. It embraced the principle of strict liability, notably in the context of harm caused by Andrew Carnegie’s coke oven, thus earning recognition as a seminal case in the evolution of modern American tort law.

"It is a fundamental principle of our system of government that the interest of the public is higher than that of the individual, so that when these interests are in conflict the latter must give way. If the individual is thereby deprived of his property without fault on his part, he is entitled to compensation; but if he is affected only in his tastes, his personal comfort, or pleasure, or preferences, these he must surrender for the comfort and preferences of the many."

Justice Henry W. Williams, 22 A. 649

Carrie Burnham Kilgore. University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania

10. In re Application of Kilgore (1886) rejected the US Supreme Court’s decision in Bradwell v. State (1872) and admitted women to the practice of law, contrary to the national trend at the time. 

As reported by Henry R. Hatfield, Esq., of the Philadelphia Bar on May 11, 1886: On motion of Damon Y. Kilgore, Esq., for the admission of Mrs. Carrie Burnham Kilgore (his wife) to practice as an attorney of the supreme court, upon production of certificates of good character, and of the applicant's admission to practice in the orphans' court and in one of the four courts of common pleas of Philadelphia county more than two years previously, the supreme court directed the prothonotary to administer the prescribed oath, and Mrs. Kilgore was duly admitted to practice as an attorney of the supreme court.

11. Commonwealth v. Wormser (1918) rejected the prevailing laissez faire jurisprudence, upheld restrictions on child labor, and became an important national precedent for legislative power to protect children in the workplace.

"Federal laws and the legislation of perhaps every state of the Union show the trend of modern thought and the popular judgment that the interest of the present and future generations demands such legal supervision as may best promote not only the individual but the general welfare. What is a reasonable time within which children should be excluded from places of labor is a legislative question. It can hardly be contended that the state is without authority to protect persons of immature years from exposure to the danger and exhausting toil of factories, and nothing has been brought to our attention which leads us to the conclusion that the period fixed by the statute is arbitrary and unreasonable."

Chief Justice Jacob Hay Brown, 103 A. 500

12. Commonwealth ex rel. Schnader v. Liveright (1932) upheld Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation plan three years before President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act.

"I hold that an appropriation of state money to combat widespread poverty arising from unemployment can no more justly be characterized as “charity” or “benevolence” than could be an appropriation of state money with which to combat a plague sweeping over Pennsylvania. An act manifestly dictated by enlightened self-interest is not an act of charity. Expenditures which are made as a matter of self-protection cannot be classed as benevolent."

Justice George W. Maxey, concurring, 161 A. 697

13. Flagiello v. Pennsylvania Hospital (1965) abolished the judicial doctrine of charitable immunity.  The decision paved the way to similar rulings by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court and other state supreme courts abolishing judge-made immunity doctrines.

"But what are the rights of the public but the collective rights of the individuals? Government of the people would mean very little if it excluded part of the people. Justice would lose much of its sanctified essence if it applied to all except those who entered charitable hospitals. It is not just, fair or logical, to equate the rights of the hospitals with the rights of the public at large."

Justice Michael A. Musmanno, 208 A.2d 193

14. Webb v. Zern (1966) overturned prior products liability jurisprudence, adopted Section 402A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and created a regime of strict products liability that became the most expansive in the United States.

Restatements are recommendations put forth by respected legal bodies, proposing modifications to diverse areas of law nationwide. Subsequently, courts may choose to adopt or dismiss these recommendations. As legal landscapes evolve, Restatements undergo updates and are reissued to reflect these changes.

15. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission v. Chester School District (1967) upheld state authority to order school desegregation, one of the first such rulings in the United States.

"The best way to demonstrate the ‘inherent worth of (one's) neighbor’ is to place individuals in a situation where they are exposed to their neighbor. This is especially true if a child can become aware of his neighbors' capabilities before his prejudices have had a chance to develop, but inter-racial cooperation may also have a beneficial effect on the thinking of adults."

Justice Samuel J. Roberts, 233 A.2d 290

Chief Justice Roberts and his wife, Marian

16. DiFlorido v. DiFlorido (1974) applied Pennsylvania’s Equal Rights Amendment to invalidate the long-standing legal presumption that a husband owned all goods used and possessed by both spouses.  A companion case, Hopkins v. Blanco (1974), held that women have an equal right to claim loss of consortium, which was previously available only to men.  These became important national precedents for the application of state equal rights amendments and gender equality.

"Nevertheless, we can not accept an approach that would base ownership of household items on proof of funding alone, since to do so would necessitate an itemized accounting whenever a dispute over household goods arose and would fail to acknowledge the Equally important and often substantial nonmonetary contributions made by either spouse." (footnotes omitted)

Chief Justice Benjamin R. Jones, 331 A.2d 174

17. Commonwealth v. Monumental Properties, Inc. (1974) applied Pennsylvania’s consumer protection statute broadly to any fraudulent or deceptive acts in trade or commerce and became a national precedent for the broad interpretation of such uniform statutes.

18. Commonwealth v. DeJohn (1979) recognized an individual’s expectation of privacy in bank records against governmental intrusions, even if the expectation was waived for the limited purpose of conducting financial affairs.  This decision exemplifies the rebirth of strong notions of privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution through a theoretical divergence from narrower federal precedents.

19. Commonwealth v. Bonadio (1980) ruled that a statute criminalizing voluntary deviate sexual intercourse was an impermissible regulation of the private conduct of consenting adults and violative of equal protection.  This decision has become a leading example of the Supreme Court’s commitment to protecting the autonomy of citizens.

"With respect to regulation of morals, the police power should properly be exercised to protect each individual's right to be free from interference in defining and pursuing his own morality but not to enforce a majority morality on persons whose conduct does not harm others."

Justice John P. Flaherty, 415 A.2d 47

20. Commonwealth v. Edmunds (1991) rejected the federal “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule, created a new protocol for analyzing state constitutional issues, and became a leading precedent for independent state constitutional analysis.

exclusionary rule (1855) 2. Criminal Procedure. A rule that excludes or suppresses evidence obtained in violation of an accused person's constitutional rights. - Black's Law Dictionary, Tenth Ed.

"We have no reason to believe that police officers or district justices in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania do not engage in “good faith” in carrying out their duties. What is significant, however, is that our Constitution has historically been interpreted to incorporate a strong right of privacy, and an equally strong adherence to the requirement of probable cause under Article 1, Section 8. Citizens in this Commonwealth possess such rights, even where a police officer in “good faith” carrying out his or her duties inadvertently invades the privacy or circumvents the strictures of probable cause. To adopt a “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule, we believe, would virtually emasculate those clear safeguards which have been carefully developed under the Pennsylvania Constitution over the past 200 years."

Justice Ralph J. Cappy

Portrait of Chief Justice Cappy. Artist Joseph Routon.

21. In Re Adoption of R.B.F. (2002) ruled that members of same-sex couples may adopt the children of their partners, through a determination that in such cases, the Adoption Act does not require that a legal parent relinquish his or her parental rights. 

22. Stilp v. Commonwealth (2006) decided a number of important issues related to the constitutional separation of powers, applied the “rule of necessity” to hold that the Court would preside over a dispute involving judicial compensation, despite the Justices’ financial interest in the case, held that the legislature’s benign purpose in enacting legislation is irrelevant to its constitutionality, and carefully severed unconstitutional from constitution provisions related to altering the compensation of judges and other officials during their terms of office. 

23. Ferguson v. McKiernan (2007) enforced an agreement between a sperm donor involved in a private sperm donation—i.e., one that occurs outside the context of an institutional sperm bank—and the mother of his children by which the donor relinquished his right to visitation in return for mother’s agreement not to seek child support.  The decision overruled lower court rulings that the agreement was unenforceable as against public policy.

24. Applewhite v. Commonwealth (2012) held that the Pennsylvania's Voter Identification Law as applied by the Commonwealth could disenfranchise eligible voters because the identification required by the law was too difficult to obtain, thus infringing the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the PA Constitution.  This decision has become an important precedent for judicial scrutiny of voter identification laws. 

25. Scampone v. Highland Park Care Ctr., LLC (2012) reaffirmed Pennsylvania’s general rule that a corporate entity is responsible for its actions and that where a corporate entity undertakes a duty of care, the default rule is that the entity is potentially liable for its actions.  The decision made clear that corporate entities are not generally immune from liability as a threshold matter, thus confirming Pennsylvania law’s commitment to the right of tort victims to seek compensation. 

26. Robinson Township, Washington County v. Commonwealth (2013) interpreted Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment, Article I, Section 27, to deem unconstitutional a statutory scheme that allowed oil and gas operations in all zoning districts, preempted local regulation of such operations, and granted power of eminent domain to natural gas corporations. This and related Supreme Court decisions applying the Environmental Rights Amendment, including Pennsylvania Envtl. Def. Found. v. Commonwealth (2017) (discussed below), have sparked interest by other states in amending their own state constitutions to protect their natural resources.

"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. Later generations paid and continue to pay a tribute to early uncontrolled and unsustainable development financially, in health and quality of life consequences, and with the relegation to history books of valuable natural and esthetic aspects of our environmental inheritance."

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, 83 A.3d 901

Portrait of Chief Justice Castille (2018). Artist Irene Nunn.

27. Pennsylvania Envtl. Def. Found. v. Commonwealth (2017) applied Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment and clarified the Commonwealth’s duties to act as trustee of funds derived from the sale of Pennsylvania’s natural resources, which has become an important precedent for courts dealing with issues arising from the sale, in particular, of oil and gas rights.

 Const. Art. 1, § 27: 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.

28. William Penn School District v. Department of Education (2017) held that challenges to Pennsylvania’s system of funding public education were justiciable under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s education and equal protection clauses.  This decision has become an important national precedent for judicial review of the manner in which legislatures fund public education.

Const. Art. 3, § 14: The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

29. League of Women Voters v. Commonwealth (2018) recognized that different jurisprudential considerations apply to claimed violations of state and federal constitutions, held that alleged political gerrymandering in a congressional redistricting plan creates a cognizable claim under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s elections clause, and has become a leading precedent for the resurgence of focusing on rights created under state constitutional law.

Const. Art. 1, § 5: Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.

30. In re Fortieth Statewide Investigating Grand Jury (2018) strengthened due process protections for Pennsylvania citizens’ reputational rights, after a grand jury sought to issue a report impacting those interests without first providing the affected individuals an opportunity to appear and be heard.

Const. Art. 1, § 1: All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.

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