By Sara Jukes
A federal judge ruled on Monday that the pandemic guidelines from Gov. Tom Wolf to restrict the size of gatherings and non-essential business closures are unconstitutional.
A lawsuit was filed against Wolf and the Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, by four counties — Fayette, Butler, Greene and Washington — and seven businesses and their owners, which include hair salons, two drive-in movie theaters, an appliance store, a farm, a horse trainer and several legislators. Those are U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-16), state Reps. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12), Marci Mustello (R-11) and Tim Bonner (R-8).
U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, who was appointed by President Trump, sided with the plaintiffs, his ruling and opinion spelled out in a 66-page document.
“After reviewing the record in this case, including numerous exhibits and witness testimony, the Court believes that Defendants undertook their actions in a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus,” Stickman wrote in the district court ruling. “However, good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge.”
The judge ruled that the actions of the defendants violated, and continue to violate, right of assembly in the First Amendment, “specifically, the numeric limitation on the size of gatherings,” the document reads.
To continue, the orders to close non-life-sustaining businesses as well as the requirement for Pennsylvanians to stay at home violated Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the business closure violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
State Rep. Curt Sonney (R-4th) said in an interview it was good news.
“We, the Republican caucus, have felt all along that he needed to treat everybody equally and fairly,” Sonney said. “That he didn’t have the right to arbitrarily pick and choose who could be open and who couldn’t.”
Wolf’s administration has indicated that he intends to appeal the decision.
“He will probably go for a stay to keep anything from changing,” Sonney said. “We’re going to have to wait for the ruling on whether or not he gets a stay.”
However, Sonney did say the ruling negated Wolf’s restriction on gathering limits, unless Wolf is granted a stay.
The PIAA board of directors has a meeting scheduled for Wednesday to address how the ruling could affect sporting events.
“No matter what the emergency is, we have certain rights and they should not be trampled on and taken away,” Sonney said.
Though some of the orders are now moot, a concern was that the stay-at-home and business closure orders were only suspended and could be reimposed with “no actual plan to return to a state where all restrictions are lifted,” as was revealed in a testimony from Sam Robinson, a deputy chief of staff to the governor.
In ruling with the plaintiffs, Stickman’s conclusion states, “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.”
It goes on to say 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.”
Sen. Michele Brooks (R-50) said in a press release she hopes the governor will now work with the General Assembly to move forward in a more collaborative, consistent and transparent way that is constitutional and reflective of the differences within each county.
“Having experienced the sweeping impact of the governor’s mandated closures, limits on public gatherings and other restrictions, it is vital that a balance of power be maintained to uphold our Constitution and preserve our freedoms while protecting the safety and well-being of Pennsylvanians,” Brooks said.