HARRISBURG >> Judge William Stickman IV, a federal judge on the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, ruled on Sept. 14 that Gov. Tom Wolf's and Health Secretary Rachel Levine’s congregate gathering, stay-at-home and business shutdown orders are unconstitutional in the case of County of Butler v. Wolf.
In his opinion, Stickman writes, in part: "[T]he response to a pandemic (or any emergency) cannot be permitted to undermine our system of constitutional liberties or the system of checks and balances protecting those liberties.
"[E]ven in an emergency, the authority of the government is not unfettered. The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms--in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble...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. Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by [the Governor] crossed those lines."
In response, Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) made the following statement:
“For the millions of unemployed Pennsylvanians, the thousands of small business owners that have seen their livelihoods permanently ended, and all those looking for some relief from these unilaterally imposed, inconsistent and contradictory shutdown orders, this opinion offers some form of hope that a return to normalcy might be on the horizon.
“Judge Stickman’s opinion confirms what Pennsylvania Republicans have been saying all along: The Wolf administration’s use of emergency authority is unconstitutionally overbroad.
“Given the nature of this opinion, we hope that Gov. Wolf will finally work with the General Assembly to develop a plan that keeps people safe, does not unconstitutionally penalize Pennsylvanians, and takes into account our geographical differences.”
In the wake of the federal court ruling, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-34) called on Governor Wolf to work with the General Assembly to develop a plan to move Pennsylvania forward.
“The courts have validated what we have been saying all along – Governor Wolf’s arbitrary and open-ended decisions violate the Constitution. The founding fathers established a system of checks and balances that – even in an emergency – can and do function within the bounds of the Constitution.
“By his own statement, the Governor has indicated that we are returning to a ‘new normal’ and we have long questioned his ability to do without the involvement of the legislature. The federal court has upheld that the laws of this country do not provide for a Governor to create his ‘new normal,’ rather the law provide for three separate but equal branches of government who have sworn to uphold the Constitution.
“The General Assembly proved that time and again as we acted in a bipartisan manner to pass dozens of pandemic-related bills. Including efforts to reopen the state, extending necessary resources to vulnerable populations and nursing homes, ensuring our state’s children are educated and hold the administration accountable for unilateral actions.
“While we work to protect lives, we cannot disregard the civil liberties of Pennsylvanians. We hope that this ruling will signal to the Governor that he must no longer spurn attempts by the General Assembly to provide input through legislation.
“We remain open and willing to work with Governor Wolf on a real plan to that puts Pennsylvania first. It is far past time for him to abandon his go-it-alone approach and come to the table to work with the General Assembly on real solutions.”