Federal Judge Rules Gov. Wolf’s Shutdown Orders Unconstitutional
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A federal judge has ruled that key components of Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus mitigation strategy are unconstitutional, including a statewide limit on how many Pennsylvanians can gather in one place.
(Photo: In March, Gov. Tom Wolf shuttered all but “life-sustaining” businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. Photo credit: Commonwealth Media Services.)
Byline: Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA
In the 66-page ruling, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV found that the Wolf administration’s policy limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings to 25 and 250 people, respectively, violates “the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment.”
Stickman also found Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine’s stay-at-home orders and business closures, which have since been lifted, to be unconstitutional. Health experts widely considered temporary business closures and limits on operations to be necessary in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
A spokesperson for Wolf said, “We’re aware of the ruling and are reviewing the decision.”
“The court closes this opinion as it began, by recognizing that defendants’ actions at issue here were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” Stickman wrote. “But 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.”
The lawsuit was filed in May by four Western Pennsylvania counties — Butler, Fayette, Green, and Washington — as well as individual businesses and lawmakers against Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine.
It targeted, in part, an order Wolf and Levine issued in March shuttering all but “life-sustaining” businesses. Exactly what was deemed life-sustaining and how that decision was made was the center of controversy, and led the administration to create a waiver program that allowed businesses told to close to appeal the decision.
But that program itself become controversial after lawmakers and business owners reported it was unevenly applied in the same industries.
The state has since allowed businesses to reopen, although some — including restaurants, bars, and salons — are still operating under capacity restrictions.
This story will be updated.
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