A federal judge on Monday ruled in favor of several Pennsylvania counties that filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine over coronavirus restrictions and a state order to close all "non-life-sustaining businesses."
U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV wrote in his 66-page opinion, filed Monday, that Wolf's restrictions violated the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, Paula Reed Ward reports for Trib Live.
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Thomas W. King III, called the decision a "complete and total victory for the counties, businesses and the representatives."
"You can't order the entire population of Pennsylvania to stay at home," he said.
The lawsuit was filed by Butler, Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties, along with several business owners and state legislators, on May 7 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case. They argued that restrictions ordering some businesses to close while other essential businesses were permitted to remain open violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Judge Stickman said in his ruling that while the governor's administration was "well-intentioned," "good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge. Indeed, the greatest threats to our system of constitutional liberties may arise when the ends are laudable, and the intent is good — especially in a time of emergency."
"Even a vigilant public may let down its guard over its constitutional liberties only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup and that restrictions — while expedient in the face of an emergency situation — may persist long after immediate danger has passed," Stickman wrote.
He found that a policy limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings to 25 and 250 people violates "the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment." He also declared that Pennsylvania's stay-at-home orders and business closures were unconstitutional, though they have since been lifted. His ruling would prevent such policies from being implemented again.
"There is no question that this country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort," Stickman wrote. "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 "sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency," he declared.
"The fact is that the lockdowns imposed across the United States in early 2020 in response to the covid-19 pandemic are unprecedented in the history of our commonwealth and our country," the judge said. "They have never been used in response to any other disease in our history. They were not recommendations made by the CDC."
Stickman pointed out that the Pennsylvania government never defined what a "life-sustaining" business is and that the closure of nonessential businesses was unprecedented in the state's history.
"Never before has the government taken a direct action which shuttered so many businesses and sidelined so many employees and rendered their ability to operate, and to work, solely dependent on government discretion," he said.