Federal judge in Pittsburgh declares Wolf’s key COVID-19 restrictions unconstitutional; Wolf plans appeal

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

*This developing story will be updated.

A U.S. District court judge in Pittsburgh has struck down the most significant portions of the Wolf administration’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that state-imposed limits on outdoor gatherings, its stay at home order, and its business shutdown orders were unconstitutional.

Officials in four southwestern Pennsylvania counties: Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, brought the action. They were joined by businesses and Republican office-seekers.

“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,” U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV wrote in a 66-page opinion. “Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed even in an emergency.”

The court’s ruling found that Wolf’s business shutdown plan, enacted by executive order in March as the pandemic took hold, violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and that administration’s stay-at-home orders violated constitutional due process protections.

In his ruling, Stickman, who was nominated to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2019, recognized that “defendants undertook their actions in a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus.”

But “good intentions toward a laudable end are not enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge,” Stickman wrote.

“In an emergency, even a vigilant public many let down its guard over its constitutional liberties only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup and that restrictions – while expedient in the face of an emergency situation – may persist long after immediate danger has passed,” Stickman added.

In a statement, Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said the administration plans to seek a stay of the decision, and plans to appeal.

“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,” she 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.”

Monday’s “court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay-at-home orders issued in March and were later suspended, as well as the indoor and outdoor gathering limitations,” Kensinger continued. 

“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.

Public gathering limits in the state, imposed in July, are 25 for indoor events and 250 for outdoor events. Stickman noted in his opinion that he was not asked to address capacity limits at restaurants, and did not do so, the Herald-Standard of Uniontown reported.

While ruling in favor of businesses and Republican office-seekers, Stickman dismissed the plaintiffs Washington, Greene, Fayette and Butler counties that spearheaded the legal action, the Herald-Standard further reported.

Local businesses and residents remain plaintiffs in the suit, the newspaper reported.

At a press conference at Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters in suburban Harrisburg on Monday afternoon, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine noted that state officials had the support of the White House virus task force and its coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx.

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Levine did not comment on the lawsuit, but said, “It’s our collective responsibility to prevent the spread [of the virus].”

Legislative Republicans have complained for months that Wolf, who recently renewed his COVID-19 emergency declaration, had exerted over-broad executive authority to try to contain the pandemic. In July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the Democratic administration, tossing a challenge to its emergency authority.

Kevin M. Levy, an attorney for the statewide mega-firm of Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, who has tracked the administration’s pandemic policies, noted on Twitter that “the longer these restrictions last, the less deference courts will give to the governor. The judge here seems to be skeptical to Governor Wolf’s claims for extraordinary powers since these orders are part of a new normal.'”

In a joint statement, state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and  Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, praised the ruling, calling it confirmation of their position that “the Wolf administration’s use of emergency authority is unconstitutionally over-broad.

“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,” the two GOP lawmakers said.

Read the full text of the ruling below:

Federal Opinion by jmicek on Scribd

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso and Associate Editor Cassie Miller contributed to this story.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press