Court Throws Out Pennsylvania School Mask Mandate Citing Official's Lack of Authority

A mask mandate ordered by the acting health secretary of Pennsylvania has been thrown out.

The Commonwealth Court voted 4 to 1 on the decision, siding with the Republican officials in the Senate who sued to challenge the mask mandate. Judges said that the decision was made because Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam did not comply with state laws on approving regulations, with the mask mandate being approved by Governor Tom Wolf without a pre-existing emergency declaration.

Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote the court's opinion. In it, she said that health secretaries are not given "the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures."

However, Cannon emphasized that the judges "express herein no opinion regarding the science or efficacy of mask-wearing or the politics underlying the considerable controversy the subject continues to engender."

Despite this, the Wolf administration is planning to immediately appeal the ruling. A spokesperson for the administration told reporters that the authority of the secretary of health to enact such a mandate is in pre-existing laws.

"The Department of Health has directed counsel to file an appeal today," said press secretary Beth Rementer. "Filing of the appeal will immediately stay the Commonwealth Court's decision."

The original mandate was imposed in September amid a surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. Beam's mandate required that all students, staff and visitors wear masks at K-12 schools, even if they were fully vaccinated.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

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The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court voted 4 to 1 to throw out a mask mandate ordered by the state's acting health secretary. Members of the Secret Service watch over children as they work before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris tours the summer school class at the Brookline Memorial Recreation Center June 21 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

Judge Michael Wojcik, one of two Democrats on the five-judge panel that considered the case, wrote in a lone dissent that Beam's order was "a valid interpretive rule that tracks the statutory and regulatory authority conferred upon her."

Republican state lawmakers pushed through a pair of constitutional amendments that voters approved in May, limiting the length of gubernatorial disaster declarations.

State Representative Jesse Topper, who sued along with Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, parents, and school entities, said the issue for him was not the masks themselves. He said the Beam order was "an end-around the constitutional amendment passed by the people, limiting the executive branch's authority during a state of emergency."

Voters agreed to end a governor's emergency disaster declaration after 21 days and gave lawmakers the sole authority to extend it or end it at any time with a simple majority vote.

Before they were passed, the state constitution required a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to end a governor's disaster declaration and, legally, the governor could issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it without limit.

"It wasn't the masks at all," Topper said Wednesday. "It was about the idea of imposing a mandate like this on a healthy population of children outside any of the regulatory process that would normally have to go through or any of the legislative process you would normally have to go through."

Corman and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward issued a statement hailing the decision.

"Today's ruling validates what we have said all along—mask decisions should be made by parents and school boards, not unelected bureaucrats," the Republican leaders said. "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."

Last month, House Republicans sought a declaration by the obscure Joint Committee on Documents that Beam's order had to be enacted as a regulation but were turned down 7-4.

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The Pennsylvania court said the state's acting health secretary did not comply with state laws on approving regulations. In this Friday, March 19 file photo, teacher Laura Bonanni prepares her kindergarten classroom for planned in-person learning at Nebinger Elementary School in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File