Some of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s restrictions limiting the size of gatherings, requiring people to stay home and keeping certain businesses closed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus were unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
The efforts to keep residents safe from the coronavirus were well-intentioned, U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV wrote in his decision.
“However, good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge,” the Trump-appointed federal judge said.
“In an emergency, even a vigilant public may let down its guard over its constitutional liberties only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup and that restrictions—while expedient in the face of an emergency situation—may persist long after immediate danger has passed,” Stickman said.
The governor’s administration will seek to appeal the ruling, spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said.
“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,” Kensinger said in a statement. “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.”
The lawsuit was brought by plaintiffs including several business owners and Republican lawmakers, and argued that limits on the number of people at gatherings, and the closure of “non-life-sustaining” businesses, violated the First Amendment right to assembly and the Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.
The Democratic governor had implemented orders as pandemic concerns grew in Pennsylvania, where more than 7,800 people have died and confirmed cases of the coronavirus have surpassed 140,000, according to state reporting.
Wolf ended the stay-at-home and business closure orders as the state began to reopen, but maintained crowd size limits at 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors. Indoor businesses such as salons and restaurants are also operating at reduced capacities.
Thomas W. King III, who represented the plaintiffs, told the AP that the ruling was “100% in our favor.”
“What it means is they can’t do it again, and they should not have done it in the past,” King said.
Kensinger said the ruling does not strike down other measures such as the mandatory mask order in place for all public spaces.
President Donald Trump tweeted his approval of the ruling on Monday, “Congratulations Pennsylvania.” He also shared Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly’s tweet explaining why he participated in the lawsuit.
“I joined this lawsuit because emergency declarations do not supersede our right to free association, due process, and equal protection under the law,” Kelly said.
Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said in a press conference on Monday that residents are encouraged to continue with their efforts to stop the spread of the virus, including avoiding large gatherings.
“It’s critically important, no matter what the court case is, that people follow these very important guidelines, and are united in doing that, to stop the spread of the virus,” Levine said.
Contributing: The Associated Press