Pennsylvania Court: School mask mandate struck down

A school mask mandate struck down today by a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge is yet another blow to Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency authority.

Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote in a 31-page opinion that acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam lacked the authority to implement a masking order without complying with the regulatory process outlined in the Commonwealth Documents Law and the Regulatory Review Act. The ruling effectively rendered the policy “void ab initio” or “void from the beginning.” 

“For this Court to rule otherwise would be tantamount to giving the Acting Secretary unbridled authority to issue orders with the effect of regulations in the absence of either a gubernatorial proclamation of disaster emergency or compliance with the Commonwealth Documents Law and the Regulatory Review Act, as passed by the General Assembly,” Cannon wrote. “As this would be contrary to Pennsylvania’s existing law, we decline to do so.” 

The decision delivers a blow to Gov. Tom Wolf, whose emergency authority was upheld in past court challenges; and it calls into question an October decision by the Joint Committee on Documents. That decision determined the school mask mandate was not subject to the regulatory process.

Republicans: ‘A constitutional win’

Republicans in the House and Senate applauded the ruling as a constitutional win after more than 18 months of failed lawsuits, vetoes and legislative obstacles. They argue those allowed the administration’s powers to go unchecked.

“This debate has never been about the effectiveness of masks in schools, or any other setting,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, said. “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.” 

The decision passes no judgement on the effectiveness of mask wearing in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Cannon wrote.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for all Pennsylvanians, regardless of how you feel about this particular issue,” Cutler said. “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.” 

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, and Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, expressed gratitude for the ruling. The “law is clear,” they said. Beam lacks the authority “to create new rules and regulations out of thin air.”

“Today’s ruling validates what we have said all along,” the leaders said. “Mask decisions should be made by parents and school boards, not unelected bureaucrats. A blanket mandate does not address the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities; and it takes power away from the people who are in the best position to protect our kids.”

Mask mandate history

Beam implemented a statewide school mask mandate for all public, private and parochial schools Sept. 7 after COVID-19 cases in school children skyrocketed more than 300% between mid-July and late-August. At the time, fewer than 15% of districts had opted to require masks indoors. That action resulted from misinformation and pressure from Republican lawmakers, Wolf said. 

Wolf’s administration’s about face on the issue generated confusion and frustration among local school district officials, who complained about the lack of direction and support from the state in enforcing the mandate. Many already had begun the school year when Beam issued the order.

Wolf announced earlier this week the statewide order would expire Jan. 17, at which time districts could make their own decision on masking.

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Christen Smith

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.