Federal Judge Finds Pennsylvania’s Covid-19 Shutdown Orders Unconstitutional

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks past stuttered businesses in Philadelphia, Pa., on May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(CN) — Coronavirus-related policies implemented by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration, which required people to stay home, ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close, and placed limits on public gatherings are unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said that measures taken by Wolf and the state’s secretary of health to combat the spread of the virus were “well-intentioned,” but he found that “good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge.”

The judge ruled that limits imposed on gatherings violate the right of assembly under the First Amendment and found that stay-at-home and business closure orders violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

“The Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by Defendants crossed those lines,” Stickman wrote.

The governor’s administration said it will seek to appeal the ruling.

Multiple counties, four Republican members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and several business owners sued state officials in May seeking a declaration that certain orders issued in response to the pandemic violated their civil rights.

The plaintiffs alleged that Pennsylvania’s lockdown “violated their fundamental right to intrastate travel and their freedom of movement.”

A March 19 order mandated the closure of all businesses that were “non-life-sustaining” and an April 1 order required Pennsylvanians to stay at home.

A July 15 order prohibited indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 people and outdoor events of more than 250 people “until further notice.” The order also imposed limitations on businesses in the food services industry and closed nightclubs.

Many of Pennsylvania’s restrictions have already been lifted and the statewide stay-at-home order has been canceled.

Stickman ruled Monday that the governor’s advisory team designated businesses as “non-life-sustaining” without any set policy as to the designation and without formulating a set definition for “life-sustaining” and “non-life-sustaining.”

Stickman called the manner in which officials administered business closures “shockingly arbitrary.”

The judge noted that although the “harshest” of the “extraordinary emergency measures” put in place six months ago have been lifted, state officials “admit that they remain in-place and can be reinstated sua sponte as and when Defendants see fit.”

“Courts are generally willing to give temporary deference to temporary measures aimed at remedying a fleeting crisis,” Stickman wrote in the 66-page opinion. “But that deference cannot go on forever. It is no longer March. It is now September and the record makes clear that Defendants have no anticipated end-date to their emergency interventions.”

The “specter of future, reinstated lockdowns” continues “to hang over the public consciousness,” the judge wrote in his opinion.

“There is no question that a global pandemic poses serious challenges for governments and for all Americans,” the judge wrote. “But the response to a pandemic (or any emergency) cannot be permitted to undermine our system of constitutional liberties or the system of checks and balances protecting those liberties.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, more than 145,000 people statewide have been infected with the virus and over 7,800 people have died. 

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