Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration is likely headed to court, according to this story by The Center Square. The story is based on Wolf’s press conference after the state legislature passed a resolution terminating Wolf’s emergency powers.
(The Center Square) — The courts will now decide if Pennsylvania’s Legislature can act unilaterally to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration for COVID-19, the administration said Wednesday.
Wolf told reporters he anticipates a brief legal battle that reaffirms what he already knows – only the governor can end the order, not the General Assembly.
“I just don’t know any constitutional grounding for what they are doing,” he said, referring to a Republican-backed resolution terminating the pandemic emergency declaration that cleared both chambers Tuesday. “The constitution is pretty clear on this, but just to make sure we are going to take it to the courts to make sure we are not missing something.”
Wolf’s comments come as legislative Republicans urge him to “follow the law” and lift the state of emergency, rescinding his unilateral power to restrict economic activity and travel.
“The emergency services law is clear,” said House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. “Upon passage of a concurrent resolution terminating a disaster declaration, the governor is required to issue a proclamation ending the disaster declaration. The Pennsylvanian Supreme Court solidified this position in a ruling earlier this year, stating the General Assembly has the ability to terminate the order at any time.”
RELATED: Wolf to veto resolution
Two sides, opposite interpretations
Gregory Schwab, the administration’s general counsel, said even if Wolf complied – which he won’t – Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine would also have to lift her own concurrent orders on business closures and other mitigation efforts in order to secure the economic freedom Republicans are chasing.
“Nothing has changed with respect to those orders and the phased reopening is based not only on the action the governor has taken, but also the Secretary of Health,” he said. “So nothing changes.”
It’s the exact opposite interpretation of state constitutional law that Republicans insist backs up the authority of their resolution to end the declaration. They disagree that doing so will cut federal disaster aid – one of the primary reasons Wolf and Democrats reject the idea – and want residents to make their own choices about when and where they isolate themselves from the virus.
“As evidenced by the bipartisan vote in the House and Senate, ending the declaration now is in the best interest of ensuring Pennsylvania can recover effectively and efficiently,” Cutler said. “If the governor chooses to openly violate the plain reading of the law, we will examine all legal actions available to us to act in the best interest of the residents of the Commonwealth.”
Worry about erosion of personal liberties
Many also worry about the personal liberties that they say the declaration – first signed March 6 and renewed on June 3 – continually erodes.
“This is our message. Don’t ignore us,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, during a rally on the Capitol steps Wednesday. “We had a member who had it. We took care of it. We stopped it in its tracks. Every business can do that.”
Diamond sponsored the resolution in March, just after Wolf imposed statewide stay at home orders and nonessential business closures as the peak of the pandemic neared.
He took time off in May, returning to work at the Capitol on May 29 after coming into close contact with Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin. Lewis tested positive for COVID-19 nine days earlier. Lewis’s failure to publicly disclose the diagnosis for more than a week drew rebuke from House Democrats. They weren’t immediately informed of Lewis’s illness despite working beside him at committee meetings and on the chamber floor.
Republicans maintain they followed guidance from the Department of Health on who should have been notified. It is a position the administration seemingly backed up in statements to the media. Attorney General Josh Shapiro also declined to investigate whether Lewis’s failure to disclose broke any laws.
Wolf’s choice to break social distancing mandates and march with Black Lives Matter protestors last week – a risky decision Wolf admits was inconsistent with his order – has left Republicans even more frustrated with the ongoing emergency order.
“We are done with the hypocrisy,” said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, during Wednesday’s rally. “The overreach and over power displayed by this governor for the last 95 days has been stunning.”
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.