Within days of his tenure as mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto won another round in a long-standing legal fight with former nemesis Darlene Harris, thanks to a Commonwealth Court ruling that upheld a law on the financing of electoral campaigns defended by Peduto.
But while politicians come and go, their differences sometimes live without them.
“I’ll talk to my client,” said Jim Burn, Harris’ attorney and a longtime player in local Democratic politics. “I still think we have a good, solid legal position, and we are looking at our options to take it to the next level.”
City law requires candidates for municipal elections to respect contribution limits and declare them in the months leading up to a primary or general election. The rules are stricter than those spelled out in state law, which sets no contribution limits and requires only one financial report from local candidates, just weeks before elections.
Harris broke city rules in 2017 when she sought to challenge Peduto’s re-election as mayor, and during her own campaign for re-election to city council two years later. His decision to file only reports required by the state earned him a fine of $ 4,150 from the city’s ethics hearing panel. Rather than paying, Harris sued to challenge the law in the dying days of his last term on the council.
But a Common Pleas judge dismissed his arguments in early 2021. A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court, a state-wide appeals court that hears cases involving government agencies, confirmed this decision Tuesday.
At the heart of the matter is the doctrine of preemption, the idea that if the state legislates in an area such as campaign finance reporting requirements, local governments do not have the right to do so. But the city argued that the autonomous municipalities of Pittsburgh have the right to make rules for their own officials.
The court agreed, ruling that “[i]n the Electoral Code, the legislator has not expressed the intention of exercising exclusive jurisdiction over the field of financing of electoral campaigns of candidates for municipal elections.
The 19-page opinion noted that Philadelphia had imposed its own rules for years and had been upheld by the state Supreme Court. Further, Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote, state and local reporting schedules “do not present an irreconcilable conflict” because candidates could follow city and state rules. (During the 2021 election cycle, the Ethics Hearing Council changed its reporting schedule to better match the state’s schedule.)
The court also rejected Harris’ claim that his four-figure fine exceeded the state’s maximum of $ 300 on local penalties: a $ 50 fine.
Burn says he’s unconvinced and can appeal the case to the state’s Supreme Court. He noted that Philadelphia is a joint city-county government, which includes the local election office – while races in Pittsburgh are governed by an electoral board convened at the county level.
The Commonwealth Court rejected that argument, but Burn says it is among those he could raise to argue that the city should revise its charter so that it can take advantage of the powers Philadelphia has.
“Instead of rewiring the house, they took extension cords,” he said.
Peduto will step down next week, two years after Harris left city government. But if Burn appeals, then Darlene Harris v. City of Pittsburgh, William Peduto and City of Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Commission will continue – for months, if not years, after two of its main fighters have left the political arena.