Pennsylvania Lockdown Orders are Unconstitutional, Federal Court Rules

Just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court let a COVID-related state lockdown order in California remain effective in the face of constitutional challenges, a federal district court judge in western Pennsylvania says those can’t go on indefinitely, striking down several of Governor Tom Wolf’s orders restricting indoor and outdoor gatherings in that state, his designations of “life-sustaining” and “non-life-sustaining” businesses, and his general “stay-at-home” order.

U.S. District Judge William Strickman IV, a 2019 appointee to the bench by President Donald Trump,  examined the evidence and arguments from plaintiffs that included salon owners, drive-in movie theaters, a farmers’ market vendor and political officeholders who challenged the orders from the governor and the state secretary of public health, Rachel Levine. The judge did not question the state’s good intentions.

“After reviewing the record in the case, including numerous exhibits and witness testimony, the Court believes that Defendants undertook their actions in a well-intentioned effort to protect Pennsylvanians from the virus,” the judge wrote. “However, good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge. 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.” (emphasis in original)

“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.”

The judge addressed the impact of the recent U.S. Supreme Court action in denying an emergency injunction blocking the California governor’s lockdown order in that state, and, in particular, Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent which argued in favor of granting an injunction in that case.

“There is no question, as Justice Alito reasoned in Calvary Chapel, that courts may provide state and local officials greater deference when making time-sensitive decisions in the maelstrom of an emergency. But that deference cannot go on forever. It is no longer March. It is now September and the record makes clear that Defendants have no anticipated end-date to their emergency interventions. Courts may be willing to give in a fleeting crisis. But here, the duration of the crisis – in which days have turned into weeks and weeks into months – already exceeds natural disasters or other episodic emergencies and its length remains uncertain. Faced with ongoing interventions of indeterminate length, ‘suspension’ of normal constitutional levels of scrutiny may ultimately lead to the suspension of constitutional liberties themselves.”

Governor Wolf promised to appeal Judge Strickman’s ruling and, in particular, will seek an emergency order stopping the effect of the ruling while the appeal goes forward. That means we will in all likelihood hear from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in short order, and perhaps from the U.S. Supreme Court after that.

It’s worth quoting something that the U.S. Department of Justice began saying months ago when it came to the support of citizens’ constitutional rights in the face of onerous state lockdown orders: “There is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”

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