Soda Pittsburgh
Anna Orso and Dan Levy/Billy Penn

The Philly soda tax had a big day in court today… in Pittsburgh (naturally?)

In what seems totally reasonable, a judge heard arguments 305 miles from the legislation being reviewed.

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Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court scheduled 30 minutes to listen to arguments about the validity of Philadelphia’s soda tax today, but that wasn’t enough. The hearing ended up lasting twice as long, with judges asking questions of the city and the coalition of distributors, beverage industry and store owners fighting the tax.

By the end of it, the Commonwealth Court — which, in a quirk because of the way cases are handled, was based in Pittsburgh — gave no indication of when they would make their ruling.

“I felt good about the argument,” said Shanin Specter, lead attorney for the anti-soda tax group, told Billy Penn from the airport. “I felt the court was very well prepared and gave both sides a lot of time. And that’s all you could ever ask of a court.”

Commonwealth hearings mostly consist of the judges asking each side questions related to the matter at hand. Specter and Mark Aronchick, an outside attorney representing the city in this case, said the judges mostly focused on the Sterling Act, which essentially prohibits a municipality from taxing the same thing the state already taxes.

“They wanted to understand,” Aronchick, also from the airport, told Billy Penn, “how the tax operates under the full text of the tax.”

Aronchick argued to the judges that Philly’s soda tax isn’t duplicative because it is levied on distributors and not on consumers at the point of sale — as the Pennsylvania sales tax is. The anti-soda tax side argued the opposite, saying the same product is taxed.

In December, Philly judge Gary S. Glazer ruled against the anti-soda tax coalition, effectively legalizing it. The anti-tax group appealed, and this was the first hearing since then. It was held in Pittsburgh because Commonwealth judges rotate between Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and this month’s session happened to be located there.

Between court dates, the sides have engaged in bitter arguments in public. The city said in February the lawsuit was delaying nearly $300M in spending it planned to borrow for parks and recreation centers. Specter the excuse was “fake news.”  

The original lawsuit was filed months before Glazer made his decision. It could certainly be several weeks before the Commonwealth Court decides.

“Oral arguments are very good experiences,” Aronchick said. “They are intended to probe positions and flesh out arguments, but the the judicial function of now making a decision and issuing an opinion is itself its own exercise. I think we just have to be patient and wait for the court to let us know.”