In a Sept. 14 decision, District Judge William Stickman IV sided with plaintiffs – including business owners and Republican officials – who sued as individuals. The suit also listed four counties as plaintiffs: Butler, Greene, Fayette and Washington. Thomas W. King III, who represented the plaintiffs, spoke of Stickman’s decision as a “complete and total victory.”
Stickman ruled against the suit’s defendants Gov. Wolf and State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, both members of the Democratic Party. According to the judge’s decision, the limits on mass gatherings violate the right of assembly guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, Stickman ruled that the public health orders to stay at home and keep businesses closed violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s clause on due process, while the order’s components relating to business closure violated the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.
While Stickman acknowledged that actions taken by Gov. Wolf and Dr. Levine were done “with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” the magistrate appointed by President Donald Trump reiterated that a government’s authority still has limits. “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 added that the solution to the health crisis “can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment.” Furthermore, the Constitution “cannot accept the concept of a ‘new normal’” where “open-ended” measures take precedence over basic liberties.
The judge also said that any liberties relinquished during emergencies may be hard to regain, and that restrictions put in place may remain long after the emergency has passed.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that they were disappointed in Stickman’s decision. Kensinger mentioned the governor’s actions saved lives and continued to do so “in the absence of federal action.”
She also expressed how the state and the rest of the country are “likely to face a challenging time during the fall and winter” with a new wave of COVID-19 alongside the flu. Nevertheless, she said that Gov. Wolf’s office is reviewing the decision.
Gov. Wolf has lifted a number of restrictions since the lawsuit’s filing in May, permitting business to reopen and rescinding orders to stay at home. Many businesses were allowed to reopen at 75 percent capacity; meanwhile, recreational and personal care businesses reopened at 50 percent occupancy. Restaurants were allowed to operate at 25 percent occupancy but were permitted to increase at 50 percent on Sept. 21.
However, the state still has restrictions: Indoor mass gatherings are limited to 25 people while outdoor events are only limited to 250 people.
In addition, Kensinger also mentioned that Stickman’s decision does not apply to mandatory orders to wear a mask when going outside and follow work-from-home arrangements for the time being.
King said that Stickman’s ruling on mass gatherings now applies to the entire state and the stay-at-home order can never be repeated, as both were deemed unconstitutional. Furthermore, the attorney added that the ruling opened the door for business owners to file lawsuits seeking relief or compensation from the state for losses during the closure period.
“You can’t order the entire population of Pennsylvania to stay at home,” King commented.
A scenario similar to what happened in Pa. also happened in the state of New York, where a federal judge found a public health order implemented by Democrat officials as unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe ruled in July that the restrictions on religious gatherings put in place by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Attorney Gen. Letitia James, all Democrats, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
In addition, Sharpe pointed out how the rule only restricted those exercising their freedom of religion – but exempted those who participated in a mass demonstration that both Gov. Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio favored.
Christopher Ferrara, a lawyer and member of the Thomas More Society, spoke of Sharpe’s decision as an important step towards stopping the exercise of “absolute monarchy on pretext of public health.”
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. currently has the highest worldwide COVID-19 caseload with 6.5 million cases, 194,536 deaths and 2.4 million recoveries.
Learn more about different regulations put in place by different U.S. states in response to the coronavirus at Pandemic.news.