Pa. Supreme Court Grants Governor Unchecked Emergency Powers
July 1, 2020, Harrisburg, Pa. — The Pa. Supreme Court ignored the commonwealth’s tradition of checks and balances between branches of government in a ruling on a lawsuit between Gov. Wolf and the General Assembly today.
The court sided with the Wolf administration after members of the General Assembly took him to court for not abiding by their concurrent resolution to end Wolf’s unilateral COVID-19 disaster declaration.
In response, Commonwealth Foundation President and CEO Charles Mitchell issued the following statement:
It is striking that the principle of checks and balances between branches of government has been so deeply tarnished in the very state where the U.S. Constitution was created and just days before we celebrate Independence Day.
In essence, the Supreme Court has given the governor the ability to not only declare a state of emergency, but to perpetuate his own emergency powers indefinitely, with the only recourse being a higher standard than impeachment. No matter the current context, this ruling strips the General Assembly of its rightful authority over the creation and elimination of laws as the direct representatives of the people. And that cuts to the fundamental reasoning for our form of government.
James Madison said in Federalist 47, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
By ruling against the General Assembly, the court has pushed us markedly closer to an unjust accumulation of powers in the executive and farther from our status as a self-governing people.
The Commonwealth Foundation calls on the General Assembly to expeditiously pass SB 1166, which is a constitutional amendment to limit the length of declared emergencies without legislative oversight.
The state’s emergency code—the statute at the heart of the dispute—says, “the General Assembly by concurrent resolution may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time,” at which point “the Governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency.”
The court’s ruling hinged upon a reading of the state constitution that would require a concurrent resolution to end an emergency declaration to be presented to the governor for signature or veto. However, this argument fails to recognize the context surrounding the emergency code.
The statute as constructed allows for the governor to initiate an emergency quickly and unilaterally and then for both houses of the General Assembly to end that emergency if they so desire. Both branches were to bookend the ability of the governor to wield what would otherwise be an illegitimate authority to create and suspend laws. Now, due to this ruling, the governor has the authority to wield emergency powers indefinitely, until two-thirds of both the House and Senate vote to override a veto.
By comparison, a lower threshold—a majority of House members voting and two-thirds of Senators voting—would be required for impeachment of a governor.
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