A federal judge has ruled Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's shutdown orders unconstitutional that placed COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings and forced all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close.
According to WPXI, U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV described the executive actions as "undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency." However, "even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered."
"The Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency,” the judge’s opinion read, asserting that those lines were crossed by the state government.
WTAE reported the declaratory judgment stipulates: congregate gathering limits imposed by defendants' mitigation orders violate the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment, the stay-at-home and business closure components of defendants' orders violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the business closure components of the defendants' orders violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
"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," Stickman 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."
Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington Counties sued Wolf and state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine among other officials, claiming locally-owned businesses had their constitutional rights violated, Pittsburgh's CBS affiliate reported.
"This is about the third generation Italian restaurant here in Washington County that fears they will go out of business," said Washington County's commissioner Nick Sherman.
Butler County Commissioner Kim Geyer noted that the situation was "hard to prepare and equip" when information was "limited by what you hear for the first time during a public press conference that the Governor holds."
The four southwestern plaintiffs were under the "Red Phase" with seemingly no end in sight when the lawsuit was filed in May as residents approached week six of family-sized "non-essential" businesses closures.
Leaders of the four counties had sent a letter to Wolf demanding for their voice to be heard and threatening legal action if they stayed in the punitive phase with no communication.
“We were really being flooded with emails and phone calls of folks who were terribly upset that their livelihoods were really being taken away from them in this process,” chair of the Butler County Board of Commissioners, Leslie Osche, told KDKA-TV.
This comes after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge to the governor's stay-at-home order brought forward by a group of businesses and spearheaded by a Republican candidate for state representative.