On September 14, 2020, United States District Judge William Stickman IV of the Western District of Pennsylvania, a recent appointee of Donald J. Trump, ruled that executive orders issued by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf closing non-life-sustaining businesses and restricting the size of gatherings as part of the Governor’s stay-at-home orders were unconstitutional.
The ruling by Judge Stickman comes in a case filed by three groups of plaintiffs, including the Counties of Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington (the “County Plaintiffs”), U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-PA, and Pennsylvania State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler (the “Political Plaintiffs”), and seven businesses and their owners (the “Business Plaintiffs”), on May 7, 2020 challenging the orders issued by Governor Wolf and the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
The County Plaintiffs were dismissed from the suit for lack of standing to bring an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but Judge Stickman ruled in favor of the Political and Business Plaintiffs, holding, “(1) that the congregate gathering limits imposed by Defendants' mitigation orders violate the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment; (2) that the stay-at-home and business closure components of Defendants' orders violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) that the business closure components of Defendants' orders violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Judge Stickman commented further that that while the governor’s actions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, “were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency… the basic liberties of the people [cannot] be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures.”
While substantially reducing their scope, the District Court’s ruling does not invalidate the Governor’s executive orders addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in their entirety, leaving other restrictions in place, including occupancy limitations on in-person business operations, and the state-wide mandate requiring all individuals to wear a face covering when leaving their home unless otherwise unable due to medical or safety reasons.
The ruling, if not overturned or distinguished, could have significant implications for stay-at-home orders in other states and the authority of state and local jurisdictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the ruling that the executive orders closing non-life-sustaining businesses was unconstitutional may pave the way for additional lawsuits from businesses that were forced to close down during the pandemic for losses and damages resulting from the closure.
Governor Wolf’s office has indicated they are reviewing the decision by Judge Stickman, and may appeal the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. As of publication, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, who defended the executive orders, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health have not yet issued a public statement.