Pennsylvania’s pandemic restrictions are unconstitutional, judge rules
Lawsuit was filed by Butler, Greene, Washington and Fayette counties
PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s closing of “non-life-sustaining” businesses and restrictions on gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge on Monday.
“We’re aware of the ruling and are reviewing the decision,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Monday afternoon.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV was made in a case in which Butler, Greene, Fayette and Washington counties are listed as plaintiffs. The counties had filed suit, claiming the shutdown orders were unconstitutional.
Stickman, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote in his ruling that the Wolf administration’s pandemic policies have been overreaching, arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.
Stickman ruled in favor of individual and business plaintiffs, and he dismissed the county governments from the case. Individuals who won the favorable ruling include U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.; state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler; and various businesses including hair salons and the Starlight Drive-In.
The declaratory judgment says “(1) that the congregate gathering limits imposed by defendants’ mitigation orders violate the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment; (2) that the stay-at-home and business closure components of defendants’ orders violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) that the business closure components of defendants’ orders violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
In his written opinion, Stickman noted that the Wolf administration’s actions “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” but 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. “There is no question that this country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort. But the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment. 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.
“Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by defendants crossed those lines. It is the duty of the court to declare those actions unconstitutional.”
Wolf has since lifted many of the restrictions, allowing businesses to reopen and canceling a statewide stay-at-home order.
But over the summer, his administration imposed a new round of statewide pandemic restrictions on bars, restaurants and larger indoor gatherings in response to rising infection rates in some virus hot spots. The state has also imposed a gathering limit of more than 25 people for events held indoors and more than 250 people for those held outside.
Pennsylvania has reported that more than 145,000 people statewide have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 7,800 people have died.