Calling the ruling a vindication of efforts challenging Gov. Tom Wolf's orders, local elected officials were pleased Monday with U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV's judgment declaring COVID-19-related state-mandated shutdowns unconstitutional.
“We're thrilled on behalf of the businesses who have struggled all throughout this, and that's what this was all about from the beginning,” County Commissioners Chairwoman Leslie Osche said. “We knew that their constitutional rights were being violated, and we wanted to make sure we stood up on their behalf.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, along with various business owners and four state and congressional representatives from Butler County. U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th, one of the plaintiffs, said the ruling reaffirmed Pennsylvanians' right to work and be free of governmental intervention.
Rep. Kelly: 'Big win'
“This is a big win for hardworking Pennsylvanians, many of whose livelihoods were destroyed by Gov. (Tom) Wolf's arbitrary shutdown orders,” he said in an emailed statement. “The federal judge's ruling affirms that emergency declarations do not give politicians license to suspend our constitutional rights.”
Another plaintiff in the action, state Rep. Tim Bonner, R-8th, said he was “pleased” with the judge's ruling and that his preliminary reading of the judge's 66-page opinion indicated to him that many of the orders issued under the governor's disaster declaration would be halted, assuming a federal appellate court does not issue a stay pending appeal.
“It appears that the business closure orders are eliminated, the limitation on crowd size is also eliminated, and there's certainly indications that the stay-at-home orders, if they would ever be contemplated by the governor going forward, would also be highly questioned,” he said. “It does appear the rights of assembly, the right to travel and freedom of speech and the right to conduct business and maintain a livelihood have prevailed over the governor's one-person rule. The court specifically said these constitutional rights must be honored even in times of emergency.”
Bonner, a longtime Grove City attorney and former Mercer County prosecutor, said he thought Stickman's ruling was persuasive and clearly written.
“It will be one that, I think, the general public, if they take the time to read it, will understand it fully and understand how the governor has violated our constitutional rights over the past seven months, which has greatly harmed families of this commonwealth and the commonwealth itself,” he said. “We will be years in recovering from the governor's unilateral rules and shutdown orders. We have challenges now that only exist because of the governor's edicts.”
His pleasure in the judge's ruling was shared by another plaintiff, state Rep. Marci Mustello, R-11th, who said she was “thrilled” by the news.
“I took this fight for the people of Butler County and Pennsylvania to the courts because I knew the governor was acting far outside of his powers and trampling on our constitutional rights,” she said. “If more mitigation measures are needed, Gov. Wolf needs to bring this to the Legislature for consideration and approval. If this is our new 'normal,' then all three branches of government must have a role in creating it.”
Counties removed from suit
While the county was a major factor in the lawsuit, that was changed as a result of Stickman's ruling. He struck all four counties from the suit, saying they do not have standing to challenge state actions as unconstitutional in this matter.
Osche said that while the county was dismissed from the lawsuit, she's glad the action accomplished its intention of having a federal judge say the governor did not have the constitutional power to issue his orders.
“I think we did what we thought was the right thing to do on behalf of our constituents, and if we had not at least brought it to light we wouldn't even be at this place,” Osche said. “We made the first phone call, we got the people on the phone because I think the business community, the people who were calling us daily in droves, didn't know what the path was to take.”
But Commissioner Kevin Boozel said the county's participation in the lawsuit, which he opposed when it came to a vote at the May 13 commissioners meeting, used taxpayer money in a way that did not further the county's interest.
“The county spent a lot of taxpayer money fighting a suit we weren't able to be a part of, basically,” he said, later adding, “I would be one of the ones to tell you that constitutional rights should trump the powers that be. We all work for the people. But I think that a pandemic or a health crisis also has its own ability to take the precedence. Somebody in leadership has to be charged with making the decision of when that happens.”