EDITORIAL: Ruling highlights flaw in Wolf's virus approach

The Dispatch Editorial Board
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during his press conference at PA CareerLink in York Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Wolf was highlighting the importance of job-finding resources in light of the unemployment cause by the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Bill Kalina photo

U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV last week exposed the the fundamental constitutional flaw in Gov. Tom Wolf's attempts to stamp out the coronavirus.

That is: Wolf's limits on gatherings, which Stickman said violates a citizen's First Amendment right to assembly, have, for six months, proven both unenforceable and legally problematic.

None of this is news to the governor. 

To be clear, Wolf's efforts to stem the spread of a disease that has killed thousands of his constituents are laudable. But, in practice, the application of his lockdown measures have relied on public buy-in instead of hardcore enforcement.

The unspoken limits to Wolf's power were present from the beginning. And throughout, the governor has shown himself keenly aware that he stood on shaky legal ground.

That was apparent early on when Wolf refused to impose on churches his mandatory closures and limitations on crowd sizes. 

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker did just that at the beginning of the outbreak and, unsurprisingly, was met a spate of lawsuits that rightly argued that state's governor was quashing the First Amendment rights of religious groups to worship. Pritzker backed down.

No matter the severity of an emergency, executive power by design has limits in this country.

That's why Wolf didn't send out state police in May when thousands of right-wing activists descended on the statehouse decrying his mandated business closures. And that's why Wolf and local officials alike resisted rounding up throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters after a cop in Minnesota suffocated a man with his knee. 

Regardless of the public health considerations, all Americans — regardless of political stripe — have a right to gather and criticize the actions of their government.

But a night of dirt track racing is not the same as rallying to decry racially targeted police brutality. And yet, Wolf has shown little interest in cracking down on the likes of Lincoln Speedway in Adams County, where spectators have for months flouted his business lockdown and limits on crowd sizes.

Whether at the pulpit or the in the pits, Wolf has proven unwilling to crackdown.

Education, he rightly said, trumps prosecution. 

That restraint — at least regarding churches and political protests — should be applauded. Yet, its very existence is evidence that Wolf's exercise of extraordinary emergency powers can exist for only as long as is constituents have his back.

From the start, Republicans in Harrisburg went to work chipping away at Wolf's support. They commingled legitimate constitutional questions with conspiracy theories, fear and partisan animus.

In so doing, they have effectively undermined the very foundation on which Wolf's entire effort to control the coronavirus stands. Wolf, too, with his stubborn resistance to releasing the information that makes his case, has weakened his efforts.

In the end, the efforts of Pennsylvania's governor has saved lives. But, with each successive extension of his emergency declaration, Wolf has strengthened worries that his exercise of power is without an expiration date and has, from the beginning, flirted with executive overreach.