Photo courtesy gsheldon
Gov. Tom Wolf
By Chadwick Dolgos
On Monday, Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV ruled that stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses executed by Gov. Tom Wolf in response to COVID-19 were unconstitutional.
Butler County joined Fayette, Greene, and Washington counties, as well as businesses and individuals impacted by the governor’s orders to file a class-action lawsuit against the governor and Dr. Rachel Levine.
According to the lawsuit, Wolf was charged with “enforcing the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and issued executive orders on March 19, 2020, March 20, 2020, and easing up guidance on May 1, 2020.”
Dr. Levine, the only other defendant named in the case, was charged with “enforcing the laws regarding the public health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its residents, including the COVID-19 Closure Orders at issue in this case.”
The lawsuit was filed at the end of May, before the state reopened, and was decided Sept. 14.
Recognizing the actions taken by the governor were well-intended, Stickman wrote in his opinion, “Indeed, the greatest threats to our system of constitutional liberties may arise when the ends are laudable, and the intent is good – especially in a time of emergency.”
“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,” Stickman added. He argued Wolf’s actions were in violation of the First Amendment protection to freely assemble and the 14th Amendment protection to due process.
Wolf’s administration defended their actions as necessary in order to protect Pennsylvanians as well as hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients.
The court found, however, that a careful historical examination of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic reveals that orders this extreme were not imposed during the worst public health crisis in history.
Rico Elmore, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s 16th representative district, was comfortable with Wolf’s initial shutdowns because there was a timeframe provided and it was understood that the orders were issued in an effort to “flatten the curve.” However, as time proceeded, Elmore grew frustrated with the lack of communication.
“[The governor] kept increasing the restrictions with no indication from where he is receiving his guidelines,” Elmore said. He said he believes the focus switched from what is best for the people to what is best for those in power.
Elmore said he was happy with Stickman’s decision because he believes the actions taken by the state showed a clear disconnect to the people’s needs and interests. Elmore, who is running in what he considers to be a small business district, believes his opponent, Democratic incumbent Robert Matzie, voted against protecting small business during the pandemic.
“I’m for small business, but the legislator in this district kept small businesses closed,” he said. “He put the people’s needs behind the party’s needs and that is just not right.”
The Wolf administration requested to stay the court’s decision on Sept. 17 and are currently preparing an appeal. Wolf had hoped to delay enforcement of the ruling while he appeals, but Stickman ultimately denied the request for a stay.
Many residents of the state remain confused by what the judge’s ruling means.
In a press release on Sept. 15, Levine, who could not be directly reached for comment, listed the orders that remain in place after the court’s ruling. “The orders that the governor and I put in place on mask-wearing, mandatory telework, worker safety, building safety, and hospital safety are still in effect to protect Pennsylvanians, especially our frontline workers.”
Along with these guidelines remaining intact, the release stated “the court ruling does not impact any of the business occupancy restrictions currently in place, including those applicable to personal care services, indoor recreation and health and wellness facilities, entertainment venues, and bars and restaurants.”
“The ruling is more symbolic than immediate because many of the things declared unconstitutional have been lifted,” said Janice Patz, legal affairs correspondent at Klixbull & Patz Attorneys at Law, a law firm located in Coraopolis.
Local business owner Donald Nevills said the governor’s shutdown closed one of his two businesses in the South Side. Jolly Roger Tattoo Supply, a retail shop supplying tattoo equipment to professional tattoo artists, announced its doors would close permanently June 11.
“Like many retail businesses that operate on a cash-flow basis, we didn’t stand a chance.
Three months with closed doors sealed our fate,” Nevills said.
Nevills’ other business, Ice 9 Studio, is currently operating with the proper precautions. “[Ice 9 Studio] is hanging on because we decided to go back to business as usual with obvious precautions.”
As a business owner in South Side, Nevills explains Wolf’s restrictions on restaurants and bars impacted every business in the area. Recognizing that the South Side’s businesses feed off of crowds produced by the atmosphere, Nevills said “Without them, failure for others is a guarantee.”
Upset with how politicians in the area and state handled the pandemic, Nevills is running for the state’s 35th representative district as an independent write-in candidate against Democratic incumbent Austin Davis. “The governor and every politician that voted to extend this imprisonment should be held accountable,” Nevills concluded.
Patz explained that Stickman was narrow in his ruling. “Judge Stickman’s ruling did not address restaurants, since, as he noted, he was not asked to do so.” The ruling was also limited on what mandates were deemed unconstitutional.
Stickman’s ruling applies to Wolf’s stay-at-home orders, his deeming of some businesses as “non-essential,” and the state’s current limits on indoor and outdoor activities.
Speaking on the judge’s decision, Patz said “it does not address mask-wearing or social distancing mandates handed down by public health experts.”
Since Stickman was narrow in his ruling, the Wolf administration is able to impose restrictions similar to the ones deemed unconstitutional, as long as his mandates are different than the ones discussed in the case. “The ruling does not affect any current mitigation orders in place,” Patz said.
One week after Stickman’s ruling deeming crowd size limits unconstitutional, President Donald Trump held a “Great American Comeback” event at Pittsburgh International Airport in Moon Township. Thousands of people attended the rally. Three hours before the event was set to begin, Stickman denied Wolf’s motion to stay.
The governor filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit the next day, Sept. 23.