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Local attorneys weigh in on state dispute on COVID-19

Local attorneys were split on the General Assembly’s decision to countermand Gov. Tom Wolf’s actions closing businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will prompt a fight in courts.

Where the governor’s emergency powers end is unclear, but state legislators would need to amend or repeal the law giving him that authority to effectuate change, rather than dictating how his authority is carried out, said Clifford Rieders, with Rieders, Travis, Humphrey, Waters & Dohrmann Attorneys-at-law.

“Like all litigation, it’s not cut and dried,” he said.

The state General Assembly recently passed a resolution to revoke Gov. Tom Wolf’s March order to close businesses. The governor threatened to take members to court Wednesday, but legislators sued Wolf before he was able.

Rieders said the Commonwealth courts need to answer the following questions: Did Wolf’s actions adhere to the state constitution in denying people their property and liberty; how broad are the governor’s emergency powers; and can legislators curtail the governor’s policing authority without changing the law giving him those powers?

Regardless, the court’s decision may take more than five years to be handed down, he said.

“I think the courts are likely to say that the legislators can repeal or amend the governor’s emergency powers but they can’t tell him that he can’t utilize the powers he was previously given,” said Rieders.

Apart from the emergency powers, the governor also retains general policing authority, which cannot be abridged either, he said.

“The real clash is that the courts will need to determine whether the chief executive has inherent emergency powers under the police powers, regardless of what the legislature says,” he said.

Thomas Waffenschmidt, attorney at his practice and president of the Lycoming Law Association, said he believed the governor’s right to enforce the law is clear — calling the lawsuit “merely political.”

“This is not going to open anything up any faster… it has nothing to do with the actual reality. On the ground, it’s not going to change anything one way or another,” he said. The legislature “can pass whatever laws they want to pass, enforcing them is a totally different animal.”

While no one wants to damage the economy more than needed, state governments need to balance the economy with citizens’ health, he said.

“I think everybody is trying to get back to business as soon as possible,” said Waffenschmidt. “We’re fortunate to live in a part of the state that is a lot less affected than others.”

Robert B. Elion, attorney at Elion, Grieco, Carlucci & Shipman, P.C., said resolution is a result of people trying to solve problems in different ways.

“We are living in a novel situation,” he said. “I think it was necessary for the governor to declare an emergency and I think his actions were appropriate at the time.”

“Now that we all have a pretty good understanding of the risks, I think it should be up to individuals to make their choices,” he added.

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