American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - In Re: Commonwealth's Motion to Appoint Counsel Against or Directed to Defender Association of Philadelphia - Third Circ
Decrease font size
Increase font size
June 17, 2015
  In Re: Commonwealth's Motion to Appoint Counsel Against or Directed to Defender Association of Philadelphia - Third Circ
Headline: Third Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Suits Brought By Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Counties Attempting To Bar Attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Organization from Representing Clients in State PCRA Proceedings.

Area of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Were the Federal Community Defender Organization's invocations of removal jurisdiction proper?

Brief Summary:
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and various Pennsylvania counties moved to bar attorneys from the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Community Defender Organization for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from representing clients who have been sentenced to the death penalty in state post-conviction proceedings. In seven different Post-Conviction Review Act (PCRA) cases, various Pennsylvania counties, sought to disqualify the Federal Community Defender as counsel, based on the organization's alleged misuse of federal grant funds to appear in state proceedings. The Federal Community Defender removed all of these motions under the federal officer removal statute. In response, the Commonwealth filed motions to return each case to the state court, claiming that the federal officer removal statute did not confer federal subject matter jurisdiction. The Federal Community Defender then filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the Commonwealth lacked a private right of action under federal law, and alternatively, that federal law preempted the Commonwealth's motions. The Third Circuit held that the Federal Community Defender's motions to dismiss should be granted, because the Commonwealth's attempts to disqualify Federal Community Defender attorneys as counsel in PCRA proceedings are preempted by federal law. Further, Congress has delegated supervisory authority over the grant funding the Federal Community Defender to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO). Therefore, if the Commonwealth were able to sanction the Federal Community Defender, it would conflict with federal objectives.

Extended Summary:
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and various Pennsylvania counties moved to bar attorneys from the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Community Defender Organization for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ("FCD") from representing clients who have been sentenced to the death penalty in state Post-Conviction Review Act ("PCRA") proceedings. The Court notes that the motions were spawned by the concurrence of then-Chief Justice Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in which he vigorously criticized what he terms the FCD's "abusive" litigation in PCRA proceedings which he saw as improperly interfering with Pennsylvania's use of the death penalty. The FCD represents indigent defendants charged with federal crimes. Its Capital Habeas Unit represents inmates sentenced to death in Pennsylvania in federal habeas corpus proceedings. The FCD operates as a sub-unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The FCD receives a periodic sustaining grant, which is paid under the supervision of the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts ("AO").

In each of seven different hearings initiated to disqualify the FCD as counsel, the cited reason for disqualification was based on the organization's alleged misuse of federal grant funds to appear in state proceedings. While the FCD admits that it sometimes appears in PCRA proceedings without a federal court order directing it to do so, it alleges that in such cases it uses federal grant funds only for preparatory work that will also be relevant to a federal habeas corpus petition, and only if it has received a federal court order appointing it as counsel for federal habeas proceedings or is working to obtain such an appointment. In each case, a court had assigned the FCD to represent these clients in federal habeas corpus proceedings, but not in state PCRA proceedings.

The FCD removed all of these motions under the federal officer removal statute. In response, the Commonwealth filed motions to return each case to the state court, claiming that the federal officer removal statute did not confer federal subject matter jurisdiction. The FCD then filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the Commonwealth lacked a private right of action under federal law, and alternatively, that federal law preempted the Commonwealth's motions. In three cases, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ("EDPA") denied the Commonwealth's motions to remand and granted the FCD's motions to dismiss. In four cases, the Middle District of Pennsylvania ("MDPA") granted the motions to remand and denied as moot the FCD's motions to dismiss. The single issue in this appeal is whether the FCD's invocations of removal jurisdictions were proper.

The FCD alleged that federal courts have mandatory jurisdiction under the federal officer removal statute, and the Third Circuit Court agreed. The Court reasons that the statutory framework of the statute corresponds with the FCD's assertion. The House Committee on the Judiciary wrote that the most recent amendments to the statute were meant to ensure that "any individual drawn into a State legal proceeding based on that individual's status as a Federal officer has the right to remove the proceedings to a U.S. district court for adjudication.
For the FCD to properly remove, it must meet four requirements, all of which the FCD does. First, the FCD is a "person" within the meaning of the statute, which includes corporations and other non-natural entities. Second, the FCD was "acting under" a federal officer or agency, as the injuries of which the Commonwealth complains are based on the FCD's conduct while it was "acting under" the AO, a federal agency. Further, the nature of the Commonwealth's complaints pertains to the "triggering relationship" between the FCD and the AO, because the Commonwealth targets the manner in which the FCD uses its federal money, not another aspect of its representation of clients in state court. Third, the Commonwealth's claims against the FCD are "for, or relating to" an act under color of federal office. For this element, it is sufficient for there to be a "connection" or "association" between the act in question and the federal office. That is clearly true in this case. Fourth and finally, the FCD raises colorable federal defenses to the Commonwealth's claims.

The FCD raises three colorable defenses. First, the FCD claims that it committed no violations when it appeared in state court because it used non-federal funds when necessary. Second, the FCD asserts that the Commonwealth's attempts to disqualify it on the alleged basis that it was misusing federal grant money are preempted by federal law. Third, the FCD argues that the Commonwealth lacks a cause of action to enforce the terms of the FCD's grant with the AO. As it meets all four elements, the motions were properly removed to federal court.
The Third Circuit Court then analyzed the merits of the FCD's motions to dismiss. The FCD's motions argue that the Commonwealth lacks a private right of action to enforce the terms of the FCD's grant, and alternatively, that the disqualification motions are preempted by federal law. The Commonwealth conceded that it lacks a right of action, and without a private right of action, the Commonwealth may not claim a direct violation of federal law. Rather, the Commonwealth argued that its disqualification motions rest on state law, namely Article V, ยง 10(c) of the Pennsylvania constitution, which allows the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to "prescribe general rules governing practice, procedure and the conduct of all courts." Even taking the Commonwealth's argument into consideration, the disqualification proceedings may not enforce the federal statutes at issue here. Even if the disqualification proceedings are based on state law, an allegation that is severely questioned in Chief Judge McKee's concurring opinion, they conflict with federal law and therefore are preempted under the doctrine of conflict preemption. While states generally regulate the conduct of lawyers, the impetus for the proceedings here is that the FCD is allegedly applying its federal grant funds to purposes not authorized by the relevant federal statutes and grant terms. Further, these disqualification proceedings improperly attempt to supplant the AO by allowing the Commonwealth's courts to determine whether the FCD has complied with the terms of its federal grants and to sanction noncompliance. This interferes with the regulatory scheme that Congress has created. Accordingly, the disqualification proceedings are preempted by federal law and must be dismissed.

Chief Judge McKee's concurrence further responds to then-Chief Justice Castille's lament that the FCD was devoting resources one "would expect in major litigation involving large law firms." Commonwealth v. Spotz, 18 A.3d 244 (Pa. 2011) (Castille, C.J., concurring). The Chief Judge notes "I am not quite sure why the same kind of meticulous devotion of resources should not be available to someone who has been condemned to die by the state and who seeks to challenge the legality of that punishment." The majority notes its agreement with the sentiments expressed in the concurrence.


To read the full opinion, please visit http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/133853p.pdf

Panel (if known): McKee, Fuentes, and Greenaway, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: June 25, 2014

Date of Issued Opinion: June 12, 2015

Docket Numbers: No. 13-3853, 13-3854, 13-3855, 13-4070, 13-4269, 13-4325

Decided: Judgments of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania AFFIRMED; Judgments of the Middle District of Pennsylvania REVERSED and REMANDED with instructions that the Federal Community Defender's motions to dismiss be granted

Case Alert Author: Jaclyn Poulton

Counsel:
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Esq. and Thomas W. Dolgenos, Esq. (Philadelphia County District Attorney's Office); Jaime M. Keating, Esq. (Cumberland County District Attorney's Office); and Christopher J. Schmidt (Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office)

Defender Association of Philadelphia: Patrick J. Carome, Esq., Joshua M. Salzman, Esq., and Paul R.Q. Wolfson, Esq. (Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP); David Richman, Esq.
(Pepper Hamilton LLP)

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (Amici-Appellees): Lawrence S. Lustberg, Esq. and Benjamin Z. Yaster, Esq.
(Gibbons P.C.)

Author of Opinion: Judge Fuentes

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt

Edited: 06/21/2015 at 10:34 AM by Susan DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 06/17/2015 10:46 AM     3rd Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top