Governor Wolf’s Coronavirus Actions Ruled Unconstitutional…What Happens Next?

By Katie Herrmann

A federal judge ruled that Governor Tom Wolf’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were unconstitutional. Judge William S. Stickman IV, a 2019 Trump appointee to the Western District of Pennsylvania, delivered the opinion on September 14, 2020 which focused on  Governor Wolf’s actions that led to the shutdown of Pennsylvania, limited gatherings, and closed businesses.

The case was originally filed in May of 2020 by four western Pennsylvania counties (Butler, Fayette, Greene, and Washington), four members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for those areas, and several Pennsylvania businesses, but Judge Stickman dismissed the County-Plaintiffs and allowed only the businesses and individual politicians to bring their claims.

The case was filed while Pennsylvania was still “in the red” which occurred when COVID-19 cases began to rise in the state. During this time, Governor Wolf’s mitigation efforts included closing all non-life-sustaining businesses, limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings, and the statewide stay-at-home order. Many of these restrictions have been lifted or altered, but the court decided to hear the case, stating that “The provisions are merely suspended, not rescinded, and can be reimposed at Defendant’s will.”

The parties who filed suit against Governor Wolf alleged that his orders violated the First Amendment as well as the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court agreed and found, particularly, that the limits on gatherings of certain sizes – up to 25 people indoors and 250 outdoors – violated the First Amendment, that the orders closing non-life-sustaining businesses violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, and the stay-at-home order violated the Due Process Clause.

In the 66-page ruling, Judge Stickman noted that the court believed that Governor Wolf undertook his actions with “the good intention to addressing a public health emergency,” but noted 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.” The court further stated, “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 [the Governor] crossed those lines.”

The day after the court’s ruling, Governor Wolf announced his intention to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia and file a motion to stay the order. In the motion to stay, the state attorney general’s office argued that staying the judgment will “allow a life-saving mitigation tool to remain in place and preserv[e] the lives of Pennsylvanians while the legal issues are addressed on appeal.” The motion, however, was subsequently denied by Judge Stickman.

The appeal to follow will likely garner much national interest and scrutiny. Other states have limited gubernatorial power under state constitutions during the coronavirus pandemic, but the fact that the Pennsylvania Governor’s actions were found to violate the U.S. Constitution may have nationwide implications. The reaction to the decision has been split, and many legal experts believe the decision will be overturned. Critics of the ruling note that it relied too heavily on outdated precedent and that because it related to orders that occurred while Pennsylvania was in the red phase, the decision does not have much practical effect. On the other hand, this decision limits Governor Wolf’s ability to reinstate restrictions like he did earlier this year. Should Pennsylvania or any other state attempt to implement similar restrictions again (say, if COVID-19 cases significantly continue to increase), this recent decision could serve as an invitation for similar constitutional challenges nationwide.

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