Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

This court power freed Meek Mill. Could it make Philly share its Amazon HQ2 bid?

A Philadelphia lawyer filed an application for "extraordinary relief" with the state's high court earlier this month, arguing that if the court doesn't intervene, taxpayers won't know what Amazon is being offered until it's too late.

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos; Rapper Meek Mill
Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos; Rapper Meek MillRead moreBloomberg, MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia-based lawyer wants Pennsylvania's Supreme Court to make the city share details of its bid to host Amazon's planned second headquarters, using the same power it tapped to free rapper Meek Mill from prison.

Lawyer Megan Shannon filed an application for "extraordinary relief" with the state's high court earlier this month, arguing that if the court doesn't intervene, taxpayers won't know what the company is being offered until it's too late.

"By keeping its Amazon bid secret, the city is denying its citizens the right to fully participate in the democratic process," Shannon wrote in the application. "If Philadelphia is selected, its citizens will be bound by an offer that was made in secret with blatant disregard for any public opinion."

The state Supreme Court's extraordinary relief provision, also known as its "King's Bench" power, allows it to take control of cases being considered by other courts in the state when they involve issues of "immediate public importance."

In Mill's case, the Supreme Court intervened in a Common Pleas Court case against the rapper because of questions the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office expressed about the credibility of his arresting officer.

But it's very rare, in practice, for the court to use its extraordinary relief powers, said Mary Levy, a Temple University law professor specializing in appellate cases.

The order freeing Mill from prison in April was only the second of 57 King's Bench petitions that the Supreme Court granted over the prior two years, according to an analysis at the time by the Legal Intelligencer newspaper.

"It's definitely a long shot," Levy said of Shannon's bid.

Shannon, a lawyer focusing on insurance cases at the Offit Kurman law firm, has been seeking details of the city's bid since January, when she filed a records request under the state's Right-to-Know Law. She has said she's fighting the city's secrecy surrounding its Amazon bid as a concerned citizen, not as part of her job.

"This competition for Amazon HQ2 is degrading," she said in an email Tuesday, referring to the planned second headquarters by a nickname. "Amazon should build HQ2 here because Philadelphia is (in my opinion, at least) the best city in the U.S., not because we're letting them rob the public coffers."

City spokesman Mike Dunn declined to comment ahead of the city's formal response to the application, which is due Friday.

Since announcing its intention to compete for Inc.'s second corporate campus, Philadelphia has closely guarded details of its bid, arguing that other places vying for the opportunity could exploit that information if it became known. Other suitors across North America have been equally tight-lipped.

The Seattle company's plans call for spending more than $5 billion on the new headquarters, where up to 50,000 people will be employed. It has said it could eventually put eight million square feet of offices at the site, an amount of space equal to almost 6½ Comcast Center towers.

Philadelphia, along with Pittsburgh and Newark in neighboring New Jersey, was named to a list of 20 finalists for the project in January.

But virtually nothing is known about incentives offered by Philadelphia to entice the retail and technology giant, which has said it plans to announce its choice for the project during 2018.

City officials have responded to requests for that information by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and others under the state's Right-to-Know Law with scant details, such as a copy of Philadelphia's initial 108-page presentation to the company with more than a third of its pages blank.

While appeals to the state Office of Open Records have yielded orders for the city to comply with requests, Philadelphia officials have avoided having to do so by challenging those rulings in court.

One of those suits, stemming from a request made by the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, is now the focus of a legal effort comprising the Philadelphia Media Network — owner of the Inquirer, Daily News and —and other media organizations that are pushing city and state officials to release incentive details.

Shannon was similarly successful in an appeal to the state open records agency for more details from the Philadelphia bid, but lawyers for the city also appealed that ruling in a case that is now before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel J. Anders.

At a hearing on Monday, Anders set a November court date for oral arguments in the case.

Shannon said in her application for Supreme Court relief that the court process is too slow-moving for city residents to be adequately informed what Amazon is being offered, especially given the likelihood that officials would fight to keep the incentive offer secret in Commonwealth Court if it loses in the current venue.

The Supreme Court "should exercise its extraordinary jurisdiction in these Right-to-Know Law appeals to make a final determination on whether the Amazon bid is subject to disclosure before Amazon announces that it has selected Philadelphia and binds Philadelphia to the terms of an offer made without any input from the public," she wrote in the application.

Shannon and the city's lawyers told Anders at Monday's hearing that they expect the Supreme Court to take about 30 days to decide whether to intervene.

Anders said he was skeptical that it would.

"I'm going to guess this winds its way through," he said.