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Coronavirus and the Constitutional Rights of Businesses: Butler v. Wolf

Coronavirus and the Constitutional Rights of Businesses: Butler v. Wolf

In Butler v. Wolf, Judge Stickman of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued an important ruling on Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s coronavirus lockdown orders which impacts the Governor’s ability to re-impose some of the more draconian restrictions that he, and governors in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere, put in place between March and June. Whether or not you agree with the result from a political standpoint, the decision is a must-read for anyone interested in the constitutionality of the ongoing, and unprecedented, government intervention in citizens’ daily lives in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Judge Stickman’s ruling touches on many civil liberties, including the First Amendment’s right to assemble, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of the right to travel, the right to leave one’s home for any reason or no reason, the right to support oneself by pursuing a chosen occupation, and other rights.

This firm has litigated the constitutional rights of businesses —particularly the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process—on behalf of its clients, and readers of this blog will be most interested in Judge Stickman’s ruling that the orders shutting down non “life sustaining” businesses violated businesses’ rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. “An economy is not a machine that can be shut down and restarted at will by government. It is an organic system made up of free people,” and “[t]he ability to support oneself is essential to free people in a free economy.” Small businesses should also take comfort in this ruling, which prohibits the re-imposition of blanket closures of all businesses.

The Ruling

The plaintiffs in Butler v. Wolf included small businesses that sold furniture and health and beauty products; these businesses were shut down by the Governor’s orders, while Walmart, Lowes, and The Home Depot stayed open and sold the exact same products. The judge found that the lockdown orders unfairly favored these big-box retailers over the plaintiff small businesses because it “treated these retailers differently than their larger competitors, which were permitted to remain open and continue offering the same products that Plaintiffs were forbidden from selling.” The court noted it was “paradoxical that in an effort to keep people apart, [the Governor’s] business closure orders permitted to remain in business the largest retailers with the highest occupancy limits.” The Governor’s order, therefore, was not rationally related to combatting the virus, because closing a small furniture store “did not keep at home a consumer looking to buy a new chair or lamp, it just sent him to Walmart.” “In fact, while attempting to limit interactions, the arbitrary method of distinction used by [the Governor] almost universally favored businesses which offered more, rather than fewer products,” and which also, therefore “attract large crowds.”

Because the business closures treated two types of businesses differently, and that different treatment did not actually accomplish the stated goal of limiting interpersonal interactions to combat the virus, Judge Stickman found the lockdown order violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Right now, this ruling applies only in the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas), but once Judge Stickman’s ruling is appealed to the Third Circuit, the decision of that court (whether they agree with Judge Stickman or overrule him), will become binding in New Jersey, all of Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Big Picture

The ruling issued on September 14, 2020, only a few days shy of the 233rd anniversary of the founding fathers’ signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. It is fitting that the Judge wrote a lengthy and well-written opinion reminding us of the importance of the rule of law, and role of courts, even in times of crisis. As he stated, “[t]he liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms—in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble. . . . Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency.” Anticipating what will most certainly be many peoples’ reactions to the ruling—i.e., that we must do whatever it takes to protect ourselves from the virus—the Judge wrote:

[G]ood intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold government 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. 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.

As this author said in March, people following China’s response to the outbreak would have seen references to the idea that a democracy, like the United States, could not impose such severe restrictions on its own citizens. Then governors here did impose extreme restrictions as the virus spread and have openly stated that these restrictions will become the “new normal.” Judge Stickman noted the incongruity created by states adopting the same approach as China: “[i]t appears as though the imposition of lockdowns in Wuhan and other areas of China—a nation unconstrained by concern for civil liberties and constitutional norms—started a domino effect where one country, and state, after another imposed draconian and hitherto untried measures on their citizens.” But, the Judge found, “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.” That is why, as this author also predicted in March, the constitutionality of restrictions here, unlike in China, will be subject to judicial review if and when they go too far. Judge Stickman’s ruling in Butler v. Wolf came in one of the many cases now winding their way through the courts raising these exact types of challenges.

Nothing is certain, but it is likely that this case, and others like it, limit future “blanket” type orders, and force governments to take a more nuanced approach to combatting the virus (which includes deeper consideration of constitutional freedoms). Businesses trying to navigate the uncertainty created by government orders that have been ruled unconstitutional should consult experienced attorneys. If you or your business have questions, please feel free to contact me at naduston@norris-law.com or visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) Preparedness Resource Center.

The information contained in this post may not reflect the most current developments, as the subject matter is extremely fluid and constantly changing. Please continue to monitor this site for ongoing developments. Readers are also cautioned against taking any action based on information contained herein without first seeking advice from professional legal counsel.