When New Mexico Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a 30-day “public health emergency” restricting gun rights and overriding state gun laws, some Pennsylvanians wondered: Could her fellow Democrat, Gov. Josh Shapiro, use the Keystone Sate’s emergency powers laws to do the same?
As recently as June, Shapiro was in Delaware County advocating for more restrictive gun laws. And Philadelphia’s soaring violent crime rate is higher than the crime in Albuquerque, which inspired Lujan Grisham to declare an emergency.
Could Shapiro repeat the restrictive, months-long COVID lockdowns put in place by his predecessor, Gov. Tom Wolf (D)?
According to Pennsylvania political observers and analysts, the answer is not likely.
“The governor is subject to the same laws as every other Pennsylvanian and every other elected official,” Matt Brouillette, president & CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, told DVJournal. “He took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution, so any action he takes must be in accordance with the constitution, both state and national, and with all current laws. He has no authority to suspend laws.”
Pennsylvania voters approved stricter limits on the governor’s ability to declare an emergency in 2021. The state constitution sets a 21-day limit on all crisis proclamations. Those declarations cannot be extended except by a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly. The governor is prevented from issuing new disaster emergency declarations on the same topic with General Assembly permission.
House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler said he believes the constitutional limits make Pennsylvania a freer state.
“Before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans in the General Assembly, and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in particular, have been stalwart defenders of freedom and liberty and the need to follow the constitution and the rule of law,” he said in a statement to DVJournal. “We will always hold officials accountable by whatever legal means we have when they overstep.”
Maine Policy recently reviewed what states have the most and least powerful emergency powers laws for their governors to wield. It ranked Pennsylvania 10th least powerful, up from 43rd in 2021. South Carolina ranked first in the nation, while Vermont was dead last.
“The restrictions on the timeline are really key,” Commonwealth Foundation Policy Analysis Director Elizabeth Stelle said. “There’s only so much a governor can do in a 21-day period.” She added that putting the limits in the state constitution sets a higher bar “to get around than if it was just in a state statute.”
In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham suspended all open and concealed carry gun laws around Albuquerque for 30 days, with exceptions for law enforcement. The move has been roundly criticized, with multiple lawsuits filed.
“It is extremely clear that Grisham knows she is operating outside of constitutional bounds, especially after last summer’s Bruen ruling, which specifically protected individuals’ rights to carry firearms outside the home,” the National Association for Gun Rights said in a statement.
While both Lujan Grisham and Shapiro are Democrats, he appears to have earned a great deal of trust from friends and critics alike.
“Gov. Shapiro is a ‘thinker,’” says Bruce Castor Jr., former acting Pennsylvania Attorney Generalm who also served ad Montgomery County DA. He’s now in private practice. “By that, I mean he does not do “crazy” things…Our governor, I believe, will have already decided what the limitations are on his authority and would not do anything as obviously contrary to the law as the governor in New Mexico is reported to have done.”
The courts or the legislature would likely get involved should a Pennsylvania governor decide to do their best imitation of Lujan Grisham.
“Absolutely,” declared Castor. “Not just the General Assembly, or individuals within the General Assembly. Also, people aggrieved by any supposed unconstitutional act would go to court to challenge that exercise of authority.”
Stelle is confident in the system currently in place. She warns executive overreach won’t necessarily be immediately tossed. “In the past, those questions have played out through many months of litigation. I would suspect the same thing would happen in Pennsylvania, regardless of the political makeup that there would be pushback from the party that’s not the governor’s party.”
Shapiro’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Shapiro did defend former Cov. Wolf’s COVID orders while serving as state attorney general but said during his gubernatorial campaign that he didn’t agree with them.