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City charter suit caught up in high court turmoil

A charter-schools suit with major financial implications for the Philadelphia School District is one of 27 cases caught up in the turnover of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

A charter-schools suit with major financial implications for the Philadelphia School District is one of 27 cases caught up in the turnover of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Back in September 2014, the court heard arguments in the case that centers on the School Reform Commission's authority to manage charter-school growth in the financially distressed district.

The court never ruled.

And now that only three of the justices who heard the arguments are still on the bench, the court last week said it would resubmit the case and decide it based on the legal briefs that have already been filed.

That would allow the newest members of the court to participate in this and the other cases that preceded their arrival.

Josh Wilson, a court spokesman, said Tuesday that the 27 so-called resubmissions were unusual and reflected the unprecedented changes in the makeup of the seven-member panel.

"Certainly the extensive turnover on the court is unprecedented in modern history," he said. "We have three new justices.

The charter-school suit brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School contends that the SRC illegally suspended parts of the state School Code to cap charter enrollment in 2013 and then threatened to close schools that did not sign agreements with enrollment maximums.

The school also asks the state's top court to rule that the 1998 law that led to the state takeover of the district in 2001 violates the state constitution because it allows the SRC to suspend "at will" parts of the code without providing any standards to guide the suspensions.

"We remain hopeful that we'll have a decision pretty soon," Robert W. O'Donnell, the charter's lead attorney, said Tuesday.

The case, he said, has implications for all of the city's 83 charters, which enroll more than 67,000 students.

The SRC maintains the takeover law is constitutional and contains many standards for the code suspensions to help the SRC manage its finances.

The SRC said West Philadelphia Achievement should have no more than 400 students; it had 693 in the last school year.

Only Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Max Baer and Debra Todd were on the court when oral arguments were held in 2014.

Then-Chief Justice Ron Castille retired.

Justice Seamus McCaffery retired in 2014 after it was revealed that he had sent hundreds of pornographic and otherwise offensive emails.

Justice J. Michael Eakin was suspended last month by the Court of Judicial Discipline and awaits trial by that court on charges he sent and received inappropriate emails.

Justices Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht were elected to the court in November.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com

215-854-2789 @marwooda

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