Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions that required people to stay at home, placed size limits on gatherings and ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shut down are unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Monday.
U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, sided with plaintiffs that included hair salons, drive-in movie theaters, a farmer’s market vendor, a horse trainer and several Republican officeholders in their lawsuit against Wolf, a Democrat, and his health secretary.
The Wolf administration’s pandemic policies have been overreaching and arbitrary and violated citizens’ constitutional rights, Stickman wrote in his ruling.
The governor’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency. But even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered," Stickman wrote. “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 ruling means that current restrictions, including ones that limit the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings, can’t be enforced, according to attorney Thomas W. King III, who represented the plaintiffs.
“It’s really 100% in our favor. The court found in all respects that the orders issued by the governor and the secretary of health were unconstitutional. What it means is they can’t do it again, and they should not have done it in the past,” King said.
A spokesperson for Wolf said the administration was reviewing the decision. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Wolf would appeal.
Courts had consistently rejected challenges to Wolf’s power to order businesses to close during the pandemic, and many other governors, Republican and Democrat, undertook similar measures as the virus spread across the country.
Wolf has since eased many of the restrictions, allowing businesses to reopen and canceling a statewide stay-at-home order.
But over the summer, his administration imposed a new round of statewide pandemic restrictions on bars, restaurants and larger indoor gatherings in response to rising infection rates in some virus hot spots. The state has been enforcing a gathering limit of more than 25 people for events held indoors and more than 250 people for those held outside. It has also been restricting occupancy at most businesses to 75% capacity, and 50% at theaters, gyms, salons and malls.
Some counties, like Allegheny and Philadelphia, have their own pandemic restrictions. King said Monday he thinks the judge's ruling invalidates those, as well.
The lawsuit did not challenge the Wolf administration's order requiring people to wear masks in public.
Pennsylvania has reported that more than 145,000 people statewide have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 7,800 people have died.