U.S. District Court Judge William Stickman IV ruled Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 shutdown unconstitutional.

Wolf already plans to appeal.

The Case

Four western counties in Pennsylvania filed the lawsuit “during the ‘red phase’ of the governor’s reopening plan when many businesses were closed.”

The plaintiffs argued “that numeric limitations on the size of gatherings violates the First Amendment.”

They also said that “closing ‘non-life-sustaining’ businesses and requiring Pennsylvanians to stay-at-home violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Ruling

The state believed the best way to stop the spread was to shut down businesses. The Court pointed out that closing non-life-sustaining businesses “did not rationally relate” to the state’s purpose:

Closing R.W. McDonald & Sons did not keep at home a consumer looking to buy a chair or lamp, it just sent him to Walmart. Refusing to allow the Salon Plaintiffs to sell shampoo or hairbrushes did not eliminate the demand for these products, it just sent them to Walgreens or Target. In fact, while attempting to limit interactions, the arbitrary method of distinction used by Defendants almost universally favored businesses which offered more, rather than fewer products. As such, the largest retailers remained open to attract large crowds, while smaller specialty retailers-like some of the Business Plaintiffs here-were required to close.

The Court also took issue with the way numbers of people were allowed to gather:

The imposition of a cap on the number of people that may gather for a political, social, cultural, educational and other expressive gatherings, while permitting a larger number for commercial gatherings limited only by a percentage of the occupancy capacity of the facility is not narrowly tailored and does not pass the constitutional muster. Moreover, it creates a topsy-turvy world where Plaintiffs are more restricted in areas traditionally protected by the First Amendment than in areas which usually receive far less, if any, protection.”

Stickman reminded Wolf that “the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment.”

Plaintiff Reactions

Nichole Missino, owner of Giovanni’s Barber Shop, said the decision brought “tears to” her eyes. She defied Wolf’s orders in May and reopened because of the lack of income.

“It was awful, we were closed for 10 weeks, my barbers were starving,” Missino told CBS Philly.

Attorney Thomas W. King III, who represented the plaintiffs, described the decision as a “complete and total victory.” From TribLive:

In testimony for the case, King said, there was no medical evidence presented relative to the spread of covid-19, and Levine did not testify and instead sent a representative to do so.

King said he posed the question — once the stay-at-home order was lifted in early June — what establishments in Allegheny County were responsible for the increased spread of the virus, and no one could answer.

“You can’t just shut down American society,” King said.

Wolf Plans Appeal

Wolf’s office released this statement right after the ruling:

“The administration is disappointed with the result and will seek a stay of the decision and file an appeal. The actions taken by the administration were mirrored by governors across the country and saved, and continue to save lives in the absence of federal action. This decision is especially worrying as Pennsylvania and the rest of the country are likely to face a challenging time with the possible resurgence of COVID-19 and the flu in the fall and winter. Today’s court ruling is limited to the business closure order and the stay at home orders issued in March and were later suspended, as well as the indoor and outdoor gathering limitations. This ruling does not impact any of the other mitigation orders currently in place including, but not limited to the targeted mitigation orders announced in July, mandatory telework, mandatory mask order, worker safety order, and the building safety order.”

Wolf made it known on Tuesday that he will appeal. From Philly Inquirer:

Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday he will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that key components of his coronavirus mitigation strategy are unconstitutional.

“I’m going to take that appeal as far as necessary,” Wolf said, “…to make sure Pennsylvanians stay safe.”

They wear masks, social distance, and understand the severe actions needed in March to flatten the curve, he said. President Trump and the Republicans in Harrisburg, Wolf said, need to “stop playing politics with this disease.”

”I’m going to contain the virus and I think that’s the only way we can protect the lives of Pennsylvanians and keep our economy going,” Wolf said. “We’re not going to do either one if we just sit back and let this thing roll over us.”


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