MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments Monday over whether the governor can declare emergency orders longer than 60 days without legislative approval, the latest chapter of a largely partisan fight between Badger State leaders over the battle against the pandemic.
Monday’s 90-minute hearing stemmed from a petition for original action brought by Jeré Fabick, the president of Fabick Cat, the Caterpillar equipment and engine dealer for Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan and portions of Missouri and Illinois. Fabick is also an energy policy adviser at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank.
Fabick’s petition asks the high court to declare that Democratic Governor Tony Evers, or any governor, cannot declare more than a single 60-day public health emergency for a single public health crisis, in this case the novel coronavirus which has had the state in various forms of lockdown since March when Evers entered his first emergency declaration. Fabick wants the justice to enjoin the Evers administration’s subsequent July and September emergency orders that were part of the state’s continued response to Covid-19.
The relevant Wisconsin statute dealing with governor-declared emergency orders affords the chief executive broad powers to limit movement and affect the function of businesses and private property, among other measures. Evers used his most recent emergency orders to limit public gatherings and mandate face coverings in public spaces, both of which state conservatives, local businesses and commerce lobbies have fought to undo in court in lockstep with the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature.
Wisconsin law dictates that the governor can only extend a 60-day state of emergency with legislative approval, which necessitates a level of cooperation between the Badger State’s Democratic executive and Republican legislative branches that is exceedingly rare.
The state legislature has met in official quorum once since April when it first coordinated on a Covid-19 response. The one meeting it did have was to convene a special session Evers called for on police reform in light of the officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in late August which was gaveled in and out of both chambers in less than a minute.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, publicly acknowledged the severity of Wisconsin’s virus spread late last month and although he expressed openness to a second Covid-19 relief package at that time, no concrete collaborative action by the legislature and the governor has materialized since.
Coronavirus activity has skyrocketed in Wisconsin as of late, making it one of the nation’s most severe hotspots. Since Fabick filed his petition on Oct. 15, the state has seen more than 150,000 new cases, bringing it to 312,369 total cases and just under 70,000 active cases as of Sunday, according to the state Department of Health Services, or DHS.
Deaths from the novel virus have nearly doubled since the beginning of October to a total of 2,636 after it took six months from March to September to reach 1,300. DHS figures last updated on Sunday say more than 2,000 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, and 86% of the state’s hospital beds are unavailable. Eighteen patients are currently at the 530-bed field hospital Evers activated south of Milwaukee in October.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court tossed Evers’ first coronavirus lockdown order back in May when the legislature sued after his administration tried to extend the order to control the virus’ spread in its earliest weeks without getting legislative permission.
Monday’s arguments before the 4-3 conservative-majority high court involved some hair-splitting over the definitions of terms like “occurrence” and “novel,” but the heart of the case examines how limited the governor is to declare unilateral states of emergency without consulting the legislature through statutory rulemaking procedures.