HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law that unleashed an unprecedented state takeover of Pennsylvania's financially troubled capital stalled in federal court Wednesday when a federal judge threw it out.
The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III was a victory for Gov. Tom Corbett and a setback for three Harrisburg residents who claimed that the law stripped their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
But Jones agreed with the state's lawyers that the plaintiffs — a former mayoral candidate, a firefighters' union president and a religious leader — lacked standing to sue.
"The injury here, if any there may be, is to the municipality," Jones wrote. "Given the facts in the instant case, the law does not permit the plaintiffs to step into the shoes of their government to challenge legislation which the government itself does not desire to challenge."
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Paul Rossi, said Jones did not address the core issue of whether a citizen has standing under the Equal Protection Clause to force the state to apply state-created rights equally — in this case, the power to vote for municipal representatives that residents of other, legally similar cities in Pennsylvania enjoy.
"That's the issue here and Judge Jones doesn't address that in his opinion," Rossi said. "He skirts the issue."
Rossi said he would talk to his clients about whether to appeal or make a motion for reconsideration.
A Corbett spokeswoman, Kelli Roberts, said Jones' decision reiterates the administration's belief that the law is constitutional.
The lawsuit was filed in December. The Oct. 20 law was part of a broader effort by Corbett and the Republican-controlled Legislature to force the city to pay down a massive debt tied to its trash incinerator without slapping a tax on commuters or extracting concessions from creditors, such as Dauphin County and bond insurer Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp.
Under the law, state appointees have broad authority over the city's day-to-day financial dealings, as well as the power to sell city assets and negotiate contracts, but not to raise taxes.
Another law signed by Corbett last year prevents Harrisburg from seeking federal bankruptcy protection until July 1, although Mayor Linda Thompson has opposed such a move, too. That derailed a bankruptcy petition filed last fall by City Council members.