A federal judge has ruled that the state’s limits on crowd sizes and business closing orders put in place by the Wolf Administration to slow the spread of coronavirus are unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV ruled that the administration’s limits on crowd sizes -- of no more than 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors -- violate the First Amendment.
Thomas W. King, the Butler County attorney who filed the lawsuit said the decision impacts gatherings statewide.
“The judge threw out the congregate rules as unconstitutional for all gatherings,” he said.
State Rep. Timothy Bonner, R-8, Pine Township, a plaintiff in the case, said the decision restores "law and order" in the state by asserting that the legislature's constitutional duty is to pass laws, and the governor's is to enforce them.
An attorney and longtime solicitor for public bodies before being elected to the state legislature earlier this year, Bonner said he was impressed with "how strongly worded" Stickman's decision was.
"It requires the governor to come up with a much more rational and equitable plan," Bonner said.
The ruling would remove all restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, indoor or outdoor.
Stickman noted that the order limiting crowd sizes makes no exception to allow protests to exceed the crowd size limits but “the record unequivocally shows that the defendants have permitted protests and that the Governor participated in a protest which exceeded the limitation set forth in his order.”
Stickman noted that while Wolf and other state officials made public comments indicating that the order wasn’t intended to bar to protests or rallies but added that the administration hadn’t spelled out how it was making those exceptions to protect free speech in its order.
“Defendants cannot govern by comment,” he wrote. “Rather they are bound by the language of their orders. Those orders make no allowance for protests.”
Stickman also found that the administration’s crowd size limits are also illegal because they don’t take into consideration the size of the venue the crowd is gathering in, especially in light of the state’s move to allow some commercial events to take place despite the crowd-size order.
“The cap on the number of people that may gather for political, social, cultural, education and expressive gatherings while permitting a larger number for commercial gatherings limited only by a percentage of the occupancy capacity of the facility is not narrowly tailored and doesn’t pass constitutional muster,” Stickman wrote.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf said that administration officials are studying the decision.
The federal court judge’s decision gives Republicans who have repeatedly pushed back against Gov. Tom Wolf’s mitigation effort a victory that Wolf has repeatedly denied by veto pen and that the state Supreme Court has denied in cases brought to them.
“There is no question that this country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort. But the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment,” U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV wrote in his 66-page opinion. “The Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by the defendants crossed those lines.”
The lawsuit was brought by four western Pennsylvania counties -- Butler, Greene, Fayette and Washington, a group of Republican elected officials, and business owners, including the operators of drive-in theaters, hair salons, and an appliance store.
This story will be updated.