MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the Democratic governor’s extended safer-at-home order meant to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, finding the governor and state health officials cannot unilaterally lock the state down in a public emergency without the approval of lawmakers.
The conservative-majority high court’s 4-3 decision was delivered by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack in coalition with three of the court’s other conservatives, Justices Annette Ziegler, Rebecca Grassl Bradley and Daniel Kelly. The court’s liberal coalition, Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Dallet, was joined by conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn in their dissent.
The high court’s decision officially ended Wisconsin’s statewide coronavirus shutdown enacted by acting Department of Health Services chief Andrea Palm in concert with Governor Tony Evers, leaving Wisconsin’s 72 counties and hundreds of municipalities to negotiate a patchwork system of public health restrictions in the sudden absence of a broader order from the state’s executive branch.
The GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature sued Palm over the state’s lockdown on April 21, directly petitioning the high court to block an extension of the Badger State’s safer-at-home order shuttering most businesses and keeping people in their homes through Memorial Day weekend.
Republican lawmakers contended that Palm, as an unelected state official the Wisconsin Senate has not officially confirmed since her appointment in early 2019, lacked the authority to mandate such a statewide shutdown by herself without submitting the extension order to legislative rulemaking procedures.
The Legislature also opined that rural parts of the state with few confirmed cases of the virus should not be held to the same onerous lockdown standards as more densely populated cities like Madison and Milwaukee, the latter of which has seen more than half of the state’s deaths concentrated disproportionately in poorer black communities.
The high court agreed with the Legislature Wednesday, offering in its 32-page majority opinion that Palm exceeded her statutory authority by extending the lockdown without first getting a thumbs up from the Legislature and by threatening fines or imprisonment if the lockdown order was not followed.
“We do not conclude that Palm was without any power to act in the face of this pandemic,” Roggensack wrote. “However, Palm must follow the law that is applicable to statewide emergencies.”
The high court’s order enjoins enforcement of Palm’s lockdown extension, but the court decided not to grant a six-day stay of its injunction recommended by the Legislature to give it and the Evers administration time to hash out new rules.
Rationalizing that since more than two weeks has passed since the court took up the Legislature’s case, the high court decided to leave it to the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic administration to work together in good faith to establish lawful rules on their own, trusting in a level of consensus and collaboration the two bodies routinely fail to manage.
“People, businesses and other institutions need to know how to proceed and what is expected of them,” the majority said. “Therefore, we place the responsibility for this future lawmaking with the legislature and [health department] where it belongs.”
Badger State Democrats immediately condemned the high court’s consequential move Wednesday.
Evers’ office released a statement expressing regret that the court’s decision may jeopardize the work Wisconsin had been doing to maintain safe practices while gradually opening up the state.
“We had reached almost all of our gating criteria,” Evers said. “We had opened up 14,000 small businesses across the state, putting 90,000 folks back to work, and that was because of the good work of Wisconsinites across our state who banded together, stayed home, and stayed safe.”