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Federal Judge Rules Pennsylvania COVID Restrictions Unconstitutional

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that some of the restrictions put in place by the Governor during the COVID pandemic were unconstitutional reported WTAE-TV.  The ruling came in a suit brought by both Pennsylvania lawmakers and businesses.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV ruled that some of Governor Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions were arbitrary, overreaching, and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.  Judge Stickman’s declaratory judgment states, “(1) that the congregate gathering limits imposed by defendants’ mitigation orders violate the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment; (2) that the stay-at-home and business closure components of defendants’ orders violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) that the business closure components of defendants’ orders violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Stickman said that although Wolf’s actions “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” that did not make them legal. “Even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered,” he said, according to Fox News.

In his written decision, Stickman emphasized the universality of the rights of the individual.  “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 judge wrote. “There is no question that 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. 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.”

Stickman concluded, “Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by defendants crossed those lines. It is the duty of the court to declare those actions unconstitutional.”

One of most criticized elements of Wolf’s pandemic response was his order in March to close all “non-essential” businesses.  The method for determining exactly which businesses were essential and how individual businesses in those categories were treated was a muddled mess.  In June Guy Ciarrocchi, president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce said, “To this day, there’s no doubt that businesses were harmed because they were shut down and shouldn’t have been. There’s no doubt that there are people who will lose their jobs because their employer was shut down and may not need to have been.  There was no real, true standard.”

Michelle Crowley, president and CEO of the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce agreed that there was little to no consistency in Wolf’s policy.  “Some businesses did open and probably shouldn’t have been open, and others closed and found out later that they might have been able to be open,” she said. “Some of these things have been clear as mud.”

The stay-at-home order has already been rescinded and many businesses have been allowed to reopen.  However, some industries such as restaurants and salons, are still operating at limited capacity due to state restrictions.

Pennsylvania State Representative Tim Bonner (R-Butler) said Judge Stickman’s ruling, “would basically undermine the governor’s ability to continue to rule by edict,” while Washington County Commissioner Nick Sherman called the ruling, “a huge step in the right direction.” 

The Wolf administration spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger, said that the governor, a Democrat, will appeal and seek a temporary stay of Judge Stickman’s order.

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