Federal Judge Declares Pennsylvania Coronavirus Restrictions Unconstitutional

In this March 12, 2020, file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa. A federal judge in Pittsburgh has ruled that the state's coronavirus restrictions, specifically the stay-at-home order and the order to close all non-life-sustaining businesses, violate the Constitution. (AP Photo/Marc Levy, File)

By Christina Kristofic

September 14, 2020

Wolf administration is “disappointed” with ruling, plans to appeal.

A federal judge in Pittsburgh has ruled that Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders that Pennsylvanians close all non-life-sustaining businesses and stay at home in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus were unconstitutional.

Specifically, Judge William S. Stickman IV ruled that the two orders violated the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from making laws that “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” or taking action that “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.”

The limitations placed on the number of people who may gather in any one place at a time — 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors — violate the First Amendment, Stickman ruled.

Stickman said he believed that Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine issued the orders “with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency.”

“But even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered,” Stickman ruled in County of Butler v. Thomas Wolf. “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.”

The solution to a national crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, “can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment,” Stickman wrote. “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.”

The Wolf administration is “disappointed” with the ruling and will seek a stay and file an appeal, said Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger in an email.

“The actions taken by the administration were mirrored by governors across the country and saved, and continue to save lives in the absence of federal action,” Kensinger said. “This decision is especially worrying as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are likely to face a challenging time with the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter.” 

Kensinger noted that the ruling is limited to the stay-at-home order and the business closure order that were issued in March and have since been rescinded.

“This ruling does not impact any of the other mitigation orders currently in place including, but not limited to the targeted mitigation orders announced in July, mandatory telework, mandatory mask order, worker safety order, and the building safety order,” she said.

More than 140,000 people across Pennsylvania have contracted the novel coronavirus since the pandemic hit the state, according to data from the state Department of Health. More than 7,800 people in Pennsylvania have died from COVID-19 or coronavirus-related conditions.

State health officials reported the first presumptive positive cases of the novel coronavirus in early March.

Wolf declared a statewide disaster emergency on March 6.

On March 13, Wolf ordered all schools in the state to close in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. On March 19, Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to close. A few days later, Wolf issued the statewide stay-at-home order.

State House Republicans have attempted on several occasions to overturn the disaster declaration through legislative action, and failed.


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