The more things change, the more they stay the same: interpreting the Pennsylvania Uniformity Clause.

AuthorHickman, Kristin E.
PositionPennsylvania Constitution

    Since Justice Brennan touched off a purported rebirth of the state courts as the protectors of the people,(1) academics have been debating whether collected flickers of state court activity constitute a genuine trend.(2) While the substantive effect of the so-called new judicial federalism is a matter of much debate, there is some concurrence that the state courts have increasingly recognized state constitutions as independent guarantees of individual rights.(3) Nevertheless, the state courts still seem to struggle to define themselves and their role as co-equal participants in the national governmental system.

    State courts have relied upon their state constitutions to render decisions different from the federal rulings of the United States Supreme Court.(4) However, whether state courts are approaching issues with a new seriousness of analysis and independence of thought, as opposed to relying on state constitutions simply to justify disagreement with the United States Supreme Court on rights issues, remains an open question. State courts can only sustain the intellectual legitimacy of their rejection of federal constitutional doctrine in individual rights cases if they exercise such independent judgment consistently.

    Though arriving a little late at the new judicial federalism party,(5) the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is among those that have reasserted their autonomy. In Commonwealth v. Edmunds,(6) Pennsylvania's highest court signaled its intent to analyze its own state constitutional provisions independently through an examination of four criteria: "1) text of the Pennsylvania constitutional provision; 2) history of the provision, including Pennsylvania case-law; 3) related case-law from other states; [and] 4) policy considerations, including unique issues of state and local concern, and applicability within modern Pennsylvania jurisprudence."(7) The court stated: "Although we may accord weight to federal decisions where they `are found to be logically persuasive and well reasoned ...,' we are free to reject the conclusions of the United States Supreme Court so long as we remain faithful to the minimum guarantees established by the United States Constitution."(8) As one of its own members has repeatedly noted, however, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has not been consistent in exercising such authority.(9) "And still we wonder why our courts often are criticized for being like little puppies who chase their own tails rather than run forward."(10)

    It is too soon to proclaim the new judicial federalism a success in restoring the importance of state constitutions to their rightful place as protectors of the rights and interests of the people. Certainly some state courts have demonstrated new vigor with respect to hot button issues that capture the imagination and attention of the media and legal scholars. For supporters of the new judicial federalism to claim victory, however, the evaluation of state constitutional case law must go further than the cases that make for good press. For the new judicial federalism to be legitimized as more than a hollow trend, state court jurisprudence must be scrutinized with respect to the more mundane provisions of state constitutions as well.

    The purpose of this Comment is to examine whether the new judicial federalism theory holds true for one such state constitutional provision that addresses issues of demonstrated importance to the citizenry: equality and taxation. The Comment will examine the history and evolution of the Pennsylvania Constitution's uniformity clause, which requires that all taxes be uniform upon the same class of subjects.(11) Taxation is not a subject that excites the passions of many scholars or judges; however, the history of the uniformity clause shows it to be a powerful expression of the meaning of equality to the people of Pennsylvania. Moreover, how the uniformity clause is interpreted impacts the lives and livelihoods of the majority of Pennsylvania's citizens. The people of Pennsylvania have protected the provision from threats again and again at the ballot box.(12) Yet for all its declarations of independence from United States Supreme Court precedent, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has failed to live up to its promises in this area.


    The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 demonstrated the value of inland transportation to the American public.(13) To encourage commerce and economic development, state and local governments across the country initiated extensive infrastructure improvement efforts.(14) To pay for these projects, states and municipalities borrowed money, with the resulting debts to be paid by taxpayers.(15) Pennsylvania was among the states following this trend.(16) In 1825, when Pennsylvania began its improvement efforts, its debt was $6,300,000.(17) By 1837, its debt burden had grown to $24,329,000.(18) As of 1853, the city of Philadelphia alone carried debt of over $7,500,000,(19) more than that of the entire state only twenty-five years before. Pennsylvania was charging fast in pursuit of commerce, economic development, and "progress,"(20) but with consequences its people were not always willing to accept without question.(21)

    To pay for all of this development, the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized extensive real and personal property taxes to be assessed by local officials.(22) Both the improvement projects and the related taxes sparked controversy and taxpayer lawsuits. Some suits challenged the authority of local officials to undertake projects and the related debt, for which taxpayers would be responsible.(23) Others questioned the fairness of the taxes enacted to pay the debt.(24) The people were frustrated with rising inequities in taxation and other economically preferential legislation; they saw a need to limit the expanding power and presence of government.(25)

    The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was often sympathetic to the taxpayer's concerns; but even when it questioned the wisdom of legislative initiatives, the court generally upheld them.(26) The Pennsylvania Constitution at that time contained no provision expressly limiting the General Assembly's power to the tax people.(27) Unless the tax is so egregious as to be confiscatory, the court let it stand.(28) "The remedy for unwise and oppressive legislation, within constitutional bounds, is by an to appeal to the justice and patriotism of the representatives of the people. If this fails, the people, in their sovereign capacity, can correct the evil; but Courts cannot assume their rights."(29)

    In 1874, the people of Pennsylvania amended their constitution, adding a number of provisions aimed at limiting the General Assembly's authority to enact economically preferential legislation.(30) Among the new provisions was article IX, section one:

    All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws; but the General Assembly may, by general laws, exempt from taxation public property used for public purposes, actual places of religious worship, places for burial not used or held for private or corporate profit, and institutions of purely public charity.(31) The original article IX, section one was accompanied by one other provision, section two: "All laws exempting property from taxation, other than the property above enumerated shall be void."(32) In the almost 125 years since, the people of Pennsylvania have passed a few more exemptions, for certain cemeteries and veterans institution property.(33) They have added more limited clauses allowing preferential treatment for forest and agricultural preserves for the poor, disabled, and aged persons, among other things.(34) Finally, in 1968, section was split into separate uniformity and exemption provisions.(35) Nonetheless, the general text of the uniformity clause has remained unchanged since enactment.(36)

    The uniformity clause has withstood various challenges to its nature and existence.(37) In 1913 and 1928, the people of Pennsylvania rejected legislative proposals to amend the uniformity clause.(38) In 1967, in a successful effort to receive voter approval, both a referendum for a constitutional convention and the Constitutional Convention Act provided that the convention would not revise the uniformity clause.(39)

    However, despite its textual, the uniformity clause has undergone a drastic transformation of interpretation since its origin In an interesting counter-point to the new judicial federalism, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has turned its back on one hundred years of precedent, and tied its interpretation of the uniformity clause to the federal equal protection principles.(40) By discarding independent interpretation, the court has stripped the clause of its meaning and turned it on its head. The people of Pennsylvania are now less protected from discriminatory taxation than they were before 1874. "No provision in our constitution has been so much litigated yet so little understood...."(41)


    During the mid-1800s in Pennsylvania, the General Assembly enjoyed broad, virtually unlimited taxation authority.(42) In exercising that authority, it delegated the right to tax the people to numerous county and municipal agencies so that those entities could pursue various development initiatives.(43) The General Assembly would simultaneously authorize the county or municipal government to undertake a project or investment and to enact a tax on property to pay for it.(44)

    Sharpless v. Mayor of Philadelphia(45) called into question one controversial but common practice of the era.(46) The General Assembly authorized the Philadelphia city government to buy stock in railroads constructing rail lines from Philadelphia to other parts of Pennsylvania.(47) The city officials planned...

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