Federal Judge Strikes Down Key COVID-19 Orders in PA

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On Monday, September 14, U.S. District Court Judge William S. Stickman IV became the first federal or state judge in Pennsylvania to strike down Governor Tom Wolf’s emergency orders relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following briefing and an evidentiary hearing, Judge Stickman held that the orders restricting the size of gatherings, ordering Pennsylvania residents to stay at home, and closing businesses deemed non-life-sustaining all violate the U.S. Constitution. The decision is contrary to rulings by other courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court, other Pennsylvania District Courts, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – which have upheld similar state restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Learn more about those cases here and here.

These prior decisions have utilized a deferential standard of review reflecting the state’s broad police power with respect to the maintenance of public health and safety. Judge Stickman expressly rejected such a standard, holding that the ongoing nature and indefinite length of Gov. Wolf’s orders warranted the use of “ordinary canons” of Constitutional interpretation. In so doing, he did not address last month’s decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, in which the Supreme Court upheld California’s attendance limits at religious services under a deferential standard. Instead, Judge Stickman relied on a dissenting opinion opposing the majority’s use of a deferential standard in another recent Supreme Court decision upholding similar attendance limits imposed by the Governor of Nevada. 

Judge Stickman proceeded to strike down Gov. Wolf’s orders on various constitutional grounds. He held that Gov. Wolf’s restriction on gatherings to 25 people for indoor events and 250 people for outdoor events violated the First Amendment because it rested on insufficient evidence regarding the limits necessary to prevent a “mega-spreading” event and did not recognize differences among Pennsylvania counties in terms of infection rates and population density. Judge Stickman ruled that Gov. Wolf’s currently suspended stay-at-home order violated substantive due process on the ground that it applied to the entire population of Pennsylvania (with limited exceptions) for an undefined time period. And Judge Stickman held that the shutdown of non-life-sustaining businesses, which also is currently suspended, violated substantive due process and equal protection because it lacked a rational basis, given the absence of a fixed definition of businesses providing “life sustaining” services or products. 

Recognizing his opinion stands alone in Pennsylvania, Judge Stickman emphasized that he had the benefit of a developed factual record and observed that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions are not binding on federal courts deciding federal Constitutional claims. Gov. Wolf has announced he will seek a stay of the decision and pursue an appeal to the Third Circuit. 

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