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Judge Rules Governor Wolf’s Shutdown Order Unconstitutional

On September 14, 2020, Federal District Judge, for the Western District of Pennsylvania, William S. Stickman IV ruled that several of Governor Tom Wolf’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus pandemic are unconstitutional. Judge Stickman’s holding marks the first Pennsylvania court, federal or state, to find such orders impermissible under the Constitution. The plaintiffs in the case were various individual state residents, mostly politicians and business owners, as well as several county governments who challenged the limits on gatherings to 25 and 250 people, the business shutdown regimen that labeled businesses either life-sustaining or non-life-sustaining, and the general stay-at-home order, naming Governor Wolf and Secretary of Health Rachel Levine as defendants.

In ruling that the limits on gatherings violated the First Amendment pursuant to the Freedom of Assembly, Judge Stickman explained that Governor Wolf’s order was not narrowly tailored to achieve the government’s purpose of limiting the spread of the pandemic. Similar reasoning was given as to why the stay-at-home order violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, in that the order was not narrowly tailored enough so as to burden the least amount of conduct to achieve the stated goal. Finally, the business shutdown order and life-sustaining/non-life sustaining designations are unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment because of the arbitrary nature of the designations and the lack of an articulable, set definition of what is and is not a life-sustaining business.

As for the practical effects of the ruling, there are several. First, Governor Wolf has indicated that he will ask the court to first stay the holding, meaning pause any impact on the actual law, and second, he will appeal the ruling to a higher court. This brings to bear the second important point, other Pennsylvania federal and state courts, including both Supreme Courts have either ruled or indicated that similar orders are valid under the Federal Constitution. Thus, an appeal by the governor has an avenue for success, and because other Pennsylvania district courts have ruled differently than the Western District did here, the holding is likely only applicable to that district’s residents and businesses. Finally, the case only challenged a very narrow set of the governor’s orders, and of the three orders challenged, only the restrictions on gatherings are still in place. This means, subject to the geographical limits of the holding and other considerations above, the restrictions on gatherings are the only active order that could be considered rescinded by Judge Stickman’s ruling. Furthermore, Governor Wolf could mold any future orders to comport with the holdings in this case, rendering them less susceptible to constitutional challenges in court.

This update was prepared by attorneys Jeff Worley and Ian Brinkman.  This update does not constitute legal advice and has been prepared for informational purposes only. Please contact us directly with questions about your specific situation.