State Ethics Commission's Exclusive Jurisdiction
Can the Court Grant Declaratory Relief in an Action Where the State Ethics Commission Claims that the Constitutional Issue was Within its Exclusive Jurisdiction
In Blackwell v. State Ethics Commission, 125 Pa. Commw. 42, 556 A.2d 988, 989 n2 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989) the Court considered whether it was precluded from granting declaratory relief in an action where the State Ethics Commission claimed that the constitutional issue presented was within its exclusive jurisdiction to decide. Certain Philadelphia city council members contended that an Ethics Commission investigation of them was precluded by the home rule authority granted to the City of Philadelphia by Article IX, Section 2 of the Constitution, and they filed an action requesting declaratory relief.
This Court overruled the Ethics Commission's preliminary objection based on lack of jurisdiction, explaining that declaratory relief was available because the constitutional issues presented went to the heart of the Ethics Commission's authority to investigate the city council members.
It stated the following:
In Myers v. Department of Revenue, 55 Pa. Commw. 509, 423 A.2d 1101 (1980), the Court recognized that a statutory remedy is exclusive unless the jurisdiction of the courts is expressly preserved.
However, in Myers, we were equally cognizant that challenges which go to the heart of a department or agency's power ... are beyond the scope of statutorily prescribed remedies.
... When a statute provides for an exclusive remedy which calls for specialized fact-finding and/or application of an agency's administrative expertise, declaratory relief is not properly granted.
When, however, challenges--particularly constitutional challenges--are set forth questioning the validity of a statute itself or questioning the scope of a governmental body's action pursuant to statutory authority, then the Declaratory Judgments Act is properly invoked, because "the existence of an alternative remedy shall not be a ground for refusal to proceed...." 42 Pa.C.S. 7537; Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 67 Pa. Commw. 400, 447 A.2d 675 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1982), aff'd, 501 Pa. 71, 459 A.2d 1218 (1983).
Of course, even constitutional challenges to the validity of an agency's action must be pursued through the usual appellate process. Myers. Blackwell, 125 Pa. Commw. 42, 556 A.2d at 990-991.
Additionally, in Allegheny Ludlum this Court noted that "declaratory judgment is the proper procedure to determine whether a statute violates the constitutional rights of those whom the statute affects." Id., 67 Pa. Commw. 400, 447 A.2d at 679 (citing Snider v. Shapp, 45 Pa. Commw. 337, 405 A.2d 602 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1979)).
The Court concluded that the Public Utility Commission (PUC) did not have exclusive jurisdiction to determine whether constitutional due process was violated when rate increases were imposed without public participation, and it overruled the PUC's preliminary objections to the request for declaratory relief.
In Myers this Court sustained a preliminary objection filed by the Department of Revenue to a request for a declaration as to the constitutionality of a statutory provision of the Tax Reform Code of 1971, Act of March 4, 1971, P.L. 6, as amended, 72 P.S. 7101 - 10004, relating to jeopardy assessment procedures.
The Court noted that "while statutory remedies are not rendered inappropriate merely because a constitutional issue is raised, an administrative agency cannot determine the constitutionality of its own enabling legislation;" however, challenges relating to possible constitutional defects in the statutory jeopardy assessment procedures could be addressed by administrative tribunals. Myers, 55 Pa. Commw. 509, 423 A.2d at 1104 (citing Borough of Green Tree v. Board of Property Assessments, Appeals and Review of Allegheny County, 459 Pa. 268, 328 A.2d 819 (1974)).