Governor Wolf Acted Outside Legal Authority and is Failing His Constitutional Duty

April 14, 2015

Amicus brief filed in Commonwealth vs. Williams challenges legality of death penalty moratorium

HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has filed an amicus brief in the case of Commonwealth vs. Williams, calling Governor Tom Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty “a naked attempt to evade long-standing constitutional limitations on his power” and said that by making the move he is “plainly failing in his constitutional duty to ‘take care that the laws must be faithfully executed.’”

“The governor’s attempt to use his ‘reprieve’ power to implement a political and personal policy of suspending the death penalty in Pennsylvania plainly violates the Constitution,” the brief states. “A reprieve is intended to be limited and temporary… and is not intended as a tool to effect an across-the-board suspension of a statutorily created penalty or sentencing scheme.”

As defined by law a reprieve is meant to be used for a finite interval of time and is granted for specific reasons for an individual convict. Rooted constitutionally in English common law, it is meant to allow time for a convict to take specific action based on the particular circumstances of his or her own case or to allow time for a specific mental or physical condition affecting the convict to pass or be resolved, such as a request for a pardon, mental health or pregnancy.

By simply affixing the label “reprieve” to his policy choice to suspend the death penalty, the governor has attempted to evade the clear constitutional restrictions on his power and circumnavigate the legislature. Historically, Pennsylvania’s governor once enjoyed unfettered power unilaterally to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons. However, over the years the people of the Commonwealth – through Constitutional Conventions – have sought to curb what they viewed as executive abuse by severely limiting the governor’s clemency power, especially in death penalty cases.

“Surely, our fundamental constitutional judgments should not be invalidated by the mere stroke of the governor’s pen,” states the Association through the brief. “That the people of the Commonwealth made this constitutional judgment to take away from the governor the power unilaterally to upset the death penalty is particularly relevant here. And what is more, the process by which the people have expressed that judgment lends even greater weight to the argument.”