Federal Court Decision Invalidates Certain COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts by Gov. Wolf as Unconstitutional

Last Updated: Oct 1, 2020

COVID19-gavel-webA decision rendered by a federal district court judge has struck down as unconstitutional certain mitigation efforts enacted by Governor Tom Wolf in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The full decision by U.S. District Court Judge William Stickman IV of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania can be accessed here.

Background of Case

The lawsuit was brought against Gov. Wolf and Pa. Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine by four western Pennsylvania counties (Butler, Fayette, Greene, and Washington) as well as several business owners and Republican state lawmakers. 

On March 6, 2020, Gov. Wolf signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency noting that the “possible increased threat of COVID-19 constitutes a threat of imminent disaster to the health” of Pennsylvanians such that it was necessary to implement measures to limit the spread of the virus. In the months following this declaration of emergency, Gov. Wolf and his administration have enacted numerous measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. The lawsuit initiated by the Plaintiffs challenges several of these efforts implemented by Gov. Wolf as unconstitutional under the United State Constitution.

Although noting that the Governor’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency, the Court ultimately ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs with Judge Stickman opining that “even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered.” Specifically, Judge Stickman ruled that Gov. Wolf’s congregate gathering limits, stay-at-home, and business closure orders all violated certain constitutional provisions.

What Mitigation Efforts Does This Decision Apply To?

  • Congregate Gathering Limits Violated the First Amendment: Gov. Wolf had imposed limitations on events and gathering to under 25 persons when indoors and under 250 persons when outdoors. This order and subsequent orders exempted religious gathering and certain other commercial operations. The Plaintiffs argued that Gov. Wolf’s order limiting the number of people who can attend events and gatherings violated their rights to assembly and their related right of free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs.
  • Stay-at-home and Business Closure Orders Violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause: The Court ruled that the stay-at-home and business closure components of Gov. Wolf’s orders violated the substantive due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. Earlier this year, Gov. Wolf had issued a statewide stay-at-home order and an order requiring non-life sustaining business to cease in-person operations. Although these orders are no longer being enforced as all of Pennsylvania’s counties have moved to the Green Phase of reopening, the Governor’s Office described these orders as currently suspended, not expired or eliminated, and could be reinstated by the Governor if circumstances justify so. Because these orders could be reinstated by the Governor, the Court reviewed the orders for constitutionality.
  • The Business Closure Order Violated the Equal Protections Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment forbids states from denying any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws. The business plaintiffs argued that their equal protection rights were violated because they were treated differently than other business that were similarly situated. Reviewing Gov. Wolf’s mitigation efforts that allowed businesses that sold life-sustained products to remain open while requiring those businesses who did not sell such products to close, the Court opined that this method of distinction by the Governor universally favored businesses that offered more rather than fewer products.

What Efforts Does This Order Not Apply To?

Note that the District Court’s decision only affects the mitigation efforts mentioned above. Many mitigation efforts enacted by Gov. Wolf during the COVID-19 emergency are unaffected by the Court’s decision.

The decision does not change the statewide mandatory mask order, the regulatory licensing and practice waivers enacted by the Departments of Health and State, the limited liability protection order, telemedicine related waivers, telework recommendations for employees who can do so, and many other mitigation efforts enacted by the Governor.

What Happens Next?

Gov. Wolf is in the process of appealing the District Court’s ruling.  A stay of the ruling, which allows the affected orders to remain in place until the appeals process is exhausted, has been granted by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

PAMED will continue to monitor this case and provide updates as they occur.

For more information and resources on COVID-19, visit PAMED's COVID-19 Resource Center webpage at www.pamedsoc.org/coronavirus

1 comment

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  1. Robert Mirsky | Sep 23, 2020
    We were in a crisis, one that could have resulted in far more deaths then apparently a federal judge realized.  While the measures put in place may not have been popular, they were medically necessary.  Governor Wolf made unpopular decisions, but when in a crisis any decision made would find people who disagree with the decision.  The judge apparently did not appreciate the risk to life at the time.  I am not a lawyer, but I do know that the bill of rights allows for free speech, butt going into a crowded theatre and yelling fire is illegal.  Sometimes the risk to people have to be weighed against a general constitutional right.

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