Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court handed Gov. Tom Wolf yet another setback in his ongoing effort to use the COVID-19 pandemic to expand his power, striking down a mask mandate critics said was clearly beyond his authority.
On Friday, the state’s highest court both affirmed a lower court’s finding that Wolf’s health department lacked the authority to impose a mask mandate and also vacated an order allowing the administration to enforce the mandate during the appeal process.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for parents and communities whose opinions have been ignored by the Wolf administration for far too long,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte), one of the plaintiffs in the case. “The ruling today is about much more than masks in schools; it is about preventing government overreach in general. The law clearly does not give any governor or any state agency the power to create orders out of thin air in the absence of an emergency declaration and outside the regulatory review process.”
Corman, a GOP candidate for governor, argued that Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam didn’t have the authority to impose the mask mandate without going through the formal regulatory process.
“This ruling means we will not have to deal with even more extreme, unilateral measures from the Wolf administration that devastated our economy last year, including business closures and restrictions,” Corman said.
Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary to Wolf, said, “The administration’s top priority from the beginning of this pandemic has been and remains protecting public health and safety, including students and staff, to ensure in-person learning continues. We are awaiting an opinion on the decision, but the outcome is extremely disappointing. That said, the administration recognizes that many school districts want to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff, and we are hopeful they will make appropriate mitigation decisions moving forward.”
“The administration urges school districts to prioritize the health and safety of their students and staff when making mitigation decisions. Masking is a proven and simple way to keep kids in school without interruption and participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities. Universal masking in schools, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend, reduces the risk that entire classrooms will need to quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 case,” she added.
“The administration also continues to urge all eligible Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated, get boosted, and take your children ages 5 and older to get vaccinated. Appointments are available statewide for Pennsylvanians ages 5 and older for their primary series and 16+ for their booster shot. Vaccines are safe, effective, and readily available across Pennsylvania. Visit vaccines.gov to find an appointment,” she said.
This isn’t Wolf’s first defeat in the battle over the reach of the governor’s power.
In May, Pennsylvania voters approved two amendments to the Commonwealth’s constitution restricting the governor’s power to declare and then extend states of emergency. Amendment 1 authorized the General Assembly to terminate an emergency by a majority vote of both houses, as opposed to a two-thirds vote and the governor’s agreement. Amendment 2 limited emergencies to 21 days instead of the previous 90, and allowed mandates to only be extended by the Assembly, not the governor.
And Wolf found himself in political hot water over the arbitrary way he and his administration handed out exemptions to favored businesses during the 2020 lockdown. The GOP-led legislature opened an investigation in response. In September 2020, a federal judge ruled Wolf’s far-reaching lockdown orders were unconstitutional.
Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and House Majority Leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) Friday echoed the GOP message that the real issue isn’t masks, it’s mandates that exceed the governor’s legal powers.
“This debate has never been about the effectiveness of masks in schools, or any other setting. It is about whether or not each branch of our state government and the officials who work in those branches will follow the law and respect our Constitution’s design that directs the legislative branch to make the laws that govern our people.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of how you feel about this particular issue. It shows that our system of checks and balances works in the interest of all people, so that no singular voice can silence the voice of free people who allow themselves to be governed,” they said.