- - Saturday, May 2, 2020

The accused denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial sitting in jail indefinitely. The victims of serious crimes watching the perpetrators walk free at the whim of the government. Merchants watching their life’s work evaporate because they can’t have their cases heard.

What would you call that but tyranny? And that is exactly what I see every day as a practicing attorney on the front lines of America’s shuttered legal system.

The cause is a contagion that has spread like wildfire across the country. It’s not the coronavirus. It’s the tyrannical closure orders from power-hungry governors. 

As an attorney in Pennsylvania, I have seen the damage Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders have had on the courts. In criminal courts, citizens who were incarcerated awaiting trial have had their constitutional rights to a speedy trial suspended. Pennsylvanians who stand accused of crimes, but who are convicted of nothing, are subject to increased incarcerations periods without any recourse. This right is so fundamental to our way of life that if a defendant in Pennsylvania is not tried quickly enough, then the court must dismiss all charges.

The closure orders have brought civil courts to a grinding halt as well. Trials have been postponed preventing injured parties from having their day in court. My clients include business owners who fear legal exposure if they open too soon.
But this goes far beyond our court system. These orders ignore the civil liberties of almost every American. Our constitutional right to free assembly and the right to protest are both guaranteed by the First Amendment. These rights, along with the constitutional right to travel, have been dramatically curtailed or outright forbidden by governors.  

And yet, despite overwhelming evidence from health officials that shows the initial projections for infection and mortality to have been overstated, the closure orders remain in place. Here in Pennsylvania, despite recent declines in incidence and mortality, Mr. Wolf is adding new restrictions. And citizens get no specific guidance when they can return to their normal lives. 

If we were in some of the less-enlightened periods of Pennsylvania’s long history, citizens would be warming up the tar and plucking feathers instead of taking him to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Sadly, other governors across the nation have adopted similar despotic closure orders that mirror Pennsylvania’s bleak state of affairs. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has banned the sale of carpets, paint, as well as church services. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia described citizens lawfully exercising their constitutional rights of protest to seek the reopening of Virginia’s economy as “so selfish.” Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey claimed that the Bill of Rights was “above [his pay] grade and wasn’t thinking of them when he issued his closure orders.

I understand that these governors believe they are acting to protect their fellow citizens. But they have a duty to protect the liberties of those citizens, too. Our freedoms are not above anyone’s pay grade. Government exists to protect individual rights, not to take them away. The destructive actions of these governors typify the contagion among leaders who threaten every American life. 

But there are bright spots.

Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia rightfully noted that Georgia hospitals were not overwhelmed. The fear of overtaxing the health system — the rationale for the closures in the first place — was passing. This allowed Mr. Kemp to take the most thorough steps toward a complete reopening. Other states like Texas, Oklahoma and South Carolina have prudently followed Georgia’s lead. For our country to recover from the damage that governors have wrought, far more extensive reopening orders are necessary. 

The United States of America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. This concept is our most revered tradition, our collective way of life. Our country is still united by the love for our cherished freedoms. Citizens need to be brave enough to resume our normal lives while taking appropriate steps to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Governors should free us to live our lives, to chase our dreams and to let us pursue happiness for our families — and that extends to the great guarantor of our sacred rights: An open, free and fair legal system.

• Matthew D. Gailey is a lawyer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

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