In a move that freedom-lovers are cheering, while democrats bemoan, a federal judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that the Constitutional protections regarding individual liberty may not be set aside because of an ‘emergency.’
He said, “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.”
The move essentially slapped down the dictatorial decisions to remove protected freedoms, issued by democrat governor Tom Wolf.
A federal judge in Pittsburgh says Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine had good intentions to protect people from the coronavirus but their orders went too far. The judge ruled in a court order that Wolf’s closing of “non-life-sustaining” businesses and restrictions on gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic were unconstitutional.
“You can’t tell 13 million Pennsylvanians that they have to stay home. That’s not America. It never was. That order was horrible,” Thomas W. King, III, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.
Judge William Stickman IV ruled that the state-posed limits on gatherings violated the First Amendment and the stay-at-home and business-closing orders violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
The ruling by Stickman was made in a case in which Butler, Greene, Fayette and Washington counties are listed as plaintiffs. The counties had filed suit, claiming the shutdown orders were unconstitutional.
Stickman, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote in his ruling that the Wolf administration’s pandemic policies have been overreaching, arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights.
Stickman ruled in favor of individual and business plaintiffs, and he dismissed the county governments from the case. Individuals who won the favorable ruling include U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.; state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler; and various businesses including hair salons and the Starlight Drive-In.
“This ruling stands for the proposition that even in a pandemic, the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania do not forfeit their constitutionally protected rights,” Thomas E. Breth, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.
The attorneys say their clients are still willing to voluntarily abide by health guidelines such as masks and social distancing.
“The judge is saying if you own a business, the governor and the health secretary can’t shut it down,” King said. “That never again will Pennsylvanians under these circumstances be told to stay home, with fear of arrest or threats of loss of license. He’s also thrown out this nonsense that was the orders that had to do with life-sustaining or non-life-sustaining businesses, picking and choosing winners and losers.”
Lyndsay Kensinger, the governor’s press secretary, says the Wolf administration is disappointed and will seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal.
“The actions taken by the administration were mirrored by governors across the country and saved, and continue to save lives in the absence of federal action,” Kensinger said. “This decision is especially worrying as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are likely to face a challenging time with the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter.”
Kensinger said the court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March and were later suspended, as well as the indoor and outdoor gathering limitations.
“This ruling does not impact any of the other mitigation orders currently in place including, but not limited to the targeted mitigation orders announced in July, mandatory telework, mandatory mask order, worker safety order, and the building safety order,” she said.
Two Butler County Commissioners initiated the lawsuit, which was joined by other counties, individuals and businesses.
“This by no means doesn’t recognize that we have a virus and a pandemic and that have a public health issue that needs to be addressed,” Leslie Osche, Butler County Commissioner and commission chair, told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.
“We need to be self accountable, to continue to wear masks and take the necessary precautions that we’ve already been taking to mitigate the pandemic, the virus,” said Butler County Commissioner Kimberly Geyer, who serves as vice-chair of the commission.
“They’re still willing to abide by those guidelines. They still want people to be safe. They just want to be able to operate their businesses to make a living, go about their lives as they’re protected by the U.S. Constitution,” Breth said.
The declaratory judgment says “(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.”
In his written opinion, Stickman noted that the Wolf administration’s actions “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency,” but that “even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered.”
“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.
“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.”
Wolf has since lifted many of the restrictions, allowing businesses to reopen and canceling a statewide stay-at-home order.
While reopening its economy, Pennsylvania limited occupancy to 75% capacity at most businesses and 50% at theaters, gyms, salons and malls. It imposed even more restrictive measures on bars and restaurants, which the Wolf administration blamed for a summer spike in virus cases.
The judge said the plaintiffs did not challenge Wolf’s occupancy limits, and his ruling does not impact those orders. Nor did the lawsuit challenge the Wolf administration’s order requiring people to wear masks in public.