A coalition of business groups and local politicians faced down Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s aggressive COVID-19 rules – and won.
In Butler v. Wolf, federal judge William Stickman blocked many restrictions imposed on Pennsylvania businesses early in the pandemic to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
But not all of them – the severe capacity limits on restaurants, for example, remain in force. Although those challenging the rules were businesses harmed by their effect, the court did not rely upon the rules’ practical impact. Instead, it relied heavily upon prior case law, and complex legal analysis. Not surprisingly Governor Wolf immediately appealed – and the federal appeals court immediately halted (for now) the effect of Judge Stickman’s original ruling.
“There’s no sense debating a ruling that will be appealed — two of three federal judges upheld what we did. But what’s not up for debate is that our early and decisive action saved lives.”
Unfortunately for the business opponents of Wolf’s aggressive limits on the state’s economy, the appeal will likely succeed, in the view of constitutional law scholars. Both a case cited by the Butler court, and the judicial philosophy of the ruling, were considered out of date when I studied constitutional law – 40 years ago. In fact, the cases reaching that result date from the 1930’s, and predate the New Deal era governmental intervention in the economy that we take for granted today.
(In the short run, however, Judge Stickman denied the stay almost immediately because of what he viewed as a lack of evidence justifying the need for restrictions on gatherings, and the inconsistency of their application to different types of events.)
Nonetheless, the far-reaching ruling 6 months into the crisis raises many questions, not only practical ones for both businesses and their customers, but also legal issues that could quickly undermine the ruling.
- Why does this matter now, since many of the restrictions have already been relaxed? The court highlighted that Wolf’s rules have only been “suspended”, not rescinded.
- Should a court even get involved in the middle of a public health emergency? The court answered that it had to protect constitutional rights.
Formally, the court ruled that public health concerns do not get “judicial deference” six months into the crisis, especially when many businesses were permitted to remain open even under Wolf’s stringent rules, notwithstanding the health concerns.
- Were the state’s unilateral decisions on which businesses were “life-sustaining” – and therefore allowed to remain open, even when similar or nearby firm were not – arbitrary? The court agreed, applying constitutional principles of equal protection and due process.
- Will ruling affect Philadelphia’s own strong rules? Not for now – the plaintiffs were all from western PA, and did not challenge Philadelphia’s rules.
So should businesses go back to the ways things were before the crisis?
At a practical level, the virus is still here. I don’t think the virus has read Judge Stickman’s opinion yet – and would not care about it even if a virus could read. Its sole purpose is to infect another cell, to propagate itself. While many mitigation efforts have helped, Pennsylvanians are still becoming infected and dying – including a clergyman I greatly admired. More importantly, both the CDC and many local governments have issued safety rules, which remain in effect, independently of limits on the state’s rules.
In addition, the CDC acknowledges that it is constantly learning about the virus and its risks. Today’s recommendations and prohibitions may be different by tomorrow. In fact, there have been so many new rules concerning COVID-19 that professional advisors with whom I speak agree that it has been difficult to keep up with all of them.
One thing hasn’t changed, however – the economic effect of the virus. Many businesses may never return, especially in sectors most affected by safety concerns, such as hotels, or restaurants.
Just as occurred in March, at the start of the crisis, Congress is considering significant stimulus relief. After spending trillions to avoid a crash earlier this year, no one wants to slip backward for want of another few billion here or there. Of course, election year politics and other pressing virus related issues have complicated closing the next stimulus deal – unemployment benefits, liability protection for businesses and schools that reopen, and blanket PPP forgiveness, among others.
So our next steps in Pennsylvania will resemble what we have all done for the last six months – watching each day for glimmers of hope in the latest news.