PITTSBURGH -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had an unusual standing-room-only crowd Wednesday, as lawyers debated a new law that regulates the state's booming natural gas industry.
Representatives of seven municipalities say the law, known as Act 13, takes away their ability to control gas drilling operations through local zoning, leaving them defenseless to protect homeowners, parks and schools from being surrounded by drilling sites or waste pits.
"It is the role of the court to address whether the legislature went too far," said Jordan Yeager, one of the lawyers representing the municipalities.
In July, the state Commonwealth Court ruled 4-3 that the zoning aspects of Act 13 violated the state constitution, and Gov. Tom Corbett's administration appealed. The Supreme Court currently has three Republicans and three Democrats, and cannot overturn a lower court decision on a 3-3 tie vote.
The Corbett administration says the sweeping, 8-month-old law is constitutional, and doesn't violate the rights of municipalities or residents. Matthew Haverstick, one of the lawyers representing the state, noted that municipalities are created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
"When the general assembly wants to, it can override local zoning," Haverstick said. "I think the analysis stops right there."
But several justices questioned whether the power of the legislature is unlimited.
"Isn't the whole purpose of zoning to protect neighbors?" Justice Max Baer asked. "There's a point where government can go too far."
Justice Thomas Saylor questioned whether the law "could in effect turn private residential communities into industrial zones," and Justice Seamus McCaffery asked "about the constitutional right of the citizenry for quiet enjoyment" of their property.