A&B ABstract: In County of Butler v. Wolf, a federal court in Pennsylvania struck down as unconstitutional key aspects of the Pennsylvania Governor’s COVID-19 Emergency Order: limitations on the size of indoor gatherings and the “closure of all businesses that are not life sustaining.” The decision has been appealed, but the breadth of the court’s order is striking and the issue now is whether other courts will follow suit.
Federal courts have been hesitant to rule that COVID-19 regulations are unconstitutional. Notably, the Seventh Circuit recently rejected the Illinois Republican Party’s challenge to the Illinois governor’s executive order limiting physical gatherings for a social event or a political rally but providing an exemption for religious gatherings. Relatedly, the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined, in a 5-4 decision, to enjoin California’s restrictions on attendance at religious services.
The cases that have found COVID-19 regulations constitutionally defective have generally fallen into two camps: either the court finds the law is too poorly worded (i.e., unconstitutionally vague), or the application of the law is irrational (i.e., violates due process and/or equal protection). These problems have usually been fixable once spelled out. For example, a Wisconsin state court judge ruled in July that Racine’s regulations were unconstitutionally overbroad and vague, but held that the city would “maintain its full power to issue a new order addressing COVID-19.”
Unlike other courts, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania found broad constitutional violations that could not be easily remedied in County of Butler v. Wolf. The plaintiffs challenged Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s COVID-related “emergency” restrictions limiting the number of people permitted to attend gatherings and determining which businesses could remain open, based on whether they are “life-sustaining” in nature. The challenge was rooted in alleged violations of equal protection, due process, and First Amendment rights.
The court found three constitutional problems with the Governor’s orders. First, the court held that the gathering limits—25 persons for indoor gatherings, and 250 for outdoor gatherings—violated the First Amendment right to assemble because the attendance caps for assemblies were more restrictive than the 25% or 50% occupancy restrictions on certain businesses. Further, the court found that the 25-person restriction, and the fact that the restrictions applied equally across all counties regardless of their COVID statistics, was not rationally supported by evidence.
Second, the court held that the temporary closure of certain “non-life-sustaining” businesses violated plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because it was too broad and harsh to pass constitutional muster, and violated the right to choose one’s profession. Citing the century-old Supreme Court decision in Lochner v. New York, the court found that the order violated plaintiffs’ economic due process rights.
Finally, the court held that the closure of certain “non-life-sustaining” businesses also violated plaintiffs’ equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, finding no rational basis for the regulations because some businesses were treated differently than other, similar businesses. The court illustrated its reasoning with an example that imposing constraints on a “mom-and-pop” hardware store while allowing Walmart to sell the same products would not keep a consumer at home; it would simply send her to Walmart, doing nothing to protect her or others from COVID. As a result, the court found that the restrictions’ means did not rationally relate to their ends.
Governor Wolf has already sought a stay of the decision and filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. But even without a stay, the immediate impact of the decision is questionable because the challenged restrictions had, at the time of the court’s decision, already been eased by Governor Wolf as part of the Commonwealth’s phased reopening plan. This raised questions of mootness that the district court brushed aside, but which are sure to be reviewed on appeal. Moreover, the ruling does not impact other restrictions that are still in place involving teleworking, a mandatory mask order, and worker and building safety orders.
If the holding is affirmed in the Third Circuit, however, it will become precedential and could impact restrictions in other jurisdictions within the circuit, including New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands. At a minimum, until the Third Circuit decides the case, County of Butler will certainly be advanced as persuasive authority by other challengers in other courts. Its reasoning and outcome could have far-reaching impacts if adopted elsewhere.
Constitutional challenges to pandemic restrictions are pending in other federal courts. A federal court in Maine recently heard oral argument on challenges to Maine’s emergency rules, including a claim that the governor’s quarantine requirement is an unconstitutional restriction on people’s right to travel. That court has not yet issued an opinion. Other challenges to COVID-19 restrictions are pending in federal district courts across the country, including in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York. County of Butler could influence these decisions.
There are also hints that the U.S. Supreme Court may have interest in considering these types of constitutional challenges. County of Butler cited Justice Alito’s recent dissent in the Court’s denial of injunctive relief in Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak. That case involved a challenge to certain COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada. Justice Alito’s dissent advocated for a stricter constitutional review of emergency health measures, stating, “we have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.” Justice Alito also noted that “a public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”
The dissent (which was joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh) signals that at least some members of the Supreme Court are mindful of these constitutional challenges, and may be ready to consider such a case when an appropriate petition for writ of certiorari is filed. County of Butler could provide that vehicle for Supreme Court review.