Court rules Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown orders ‘well-intentioned’ but unconstitutional

A federal judge on Monday ruled that business-closure and stay-at-home orders issued by the Wolf administration in March to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus were unconstitutional.

Judge William S. Stickman of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania — appointed by President Donald Trump — ruled in favor of four western counties who sued Wolf in May over his administration’s mandates on businesses and individuals.

The lawsuit, filed by county officials, said the governor’s limitations on large gatherings violated the right of assembly of the First Amendment, and orders to close non-life-sustaining businesses and requiring Pennsylvanians to stay at home violated both the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Judge Stickman agreed. While acknowledging that the administration acted “with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” Stickman wrote that “even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered.”

“The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms — in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble,” Stickman wrote in his conclusion. “The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a ‘new normal’ where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures.”

The ruling is limited to business closure mandates and the stay-at-home orders in March, which have been gradually lifted as all Pennsylvania counties made their way to the “green phase” of Wolf’s three-phase reopening process, and current restrictions on businesses are still in place, according to Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger.

Kensinger said the Wolf administration will seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal. Actions taken by the administration, Kensinger said, mirrored actions by governors throughout the country and “continue to save lives in the absence of federal action.”

“The decision is especially worrying as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are likely to face a challenging time of the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter,” Kensinger said in an emailed statement.

Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Mifflin, lauded the court’s decision in a statement Monday afternoon, in which the lawmakers said Stickman’s opinion “offers some form of hope” to small business owners that a return to normalcy might be on the horizon.

“Judge Stickman’s opinion confirms what Pennsylvania Republicans have been saying all along: The Wolf administration’s use of emergency authority is unconstitutionally overbroad,” the lawmakers said in an emailed statement. “Given the nature of this opinion, we hope that Gov. Wolf will finally work with the General Assembly to develop a plan that keeps people safe, does not unconstitutionally penalize Pennsylvanians, and takes into account our geographical differences.”

Justin Henry
Justin Henry is the regional reporter for the Central Penn Business Journal and the Lehigh Valley Business. He can be reached at jhenry@bridgetowermedia.com.

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