Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive orders to close “non-life-sustaining” business and place restrictions on public gatherings to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus were declared unconstitutional by a federal district judge in Pittsburgh on Monday, who said they violated both the First and 14th Amendments.
U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, 41, who was appointed to the bench by President Donald Trump in 2019, ruled in favor of hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer, four western counties and several Republican officeholders.
In a 66-page ruling, Stickman said he “believes that defendants undertook their actions in a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus. However, 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.”
The ruling seems at odds with two rulings earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court which sided with governments in California, Illinois and Nevada on limiting gatherings, but those were more specific with regards to religious liberty. In both of the cases, the court was divided sharply 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that courts must give elected officials wide latitude to make health and safety judgments during a pandemic.
Both drew stinging rebukes from Justices Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
“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.”