MADISON – The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether to keep in place Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order that he says is the best way to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican lawmakers brought the lawsuit last week as they contended Evers’ restrictions have gone too far. They haven’t coalesced behind their own COVID-19 response plan, but have said they should have a hand in determining whether business should remain closed.
The high court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives, said it would hold arguments Tuesday. Like others held in recent weeks, those arguments will be conducted by videoconference because of the coronavirus outbreak.
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The court is expected to issue a ruling quickly after that.
Liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet dissented from the decision to take the case but did not say why she did not want to accept it.
More than 7,300 people in Wisconsin have tested positive for the illness, including 327 who have died.
“While we had hoped the Wisconsin Supreme Court would reject the Republicans’ lawsuit, which risks lives while having no backup plan, we are encouraged that the court will hear from the parties,” Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said by email. “The law is on our side, as is public opinion that the governor is taking the right steps to save lives while safely turning the dial to reengage our economy.”
Republican leaders did not immediately react to the court’s decision to take the case.
The case centers on how much power Evers has during a global health crisis. State law gives governors broader authority when they declare a public health emergency, but that authority expires after 60 days unless the Legislature grants an extension.
Evers declared a public health emergency March 12, and that order expires May 11.
Evers and Palm argue she is able to issue an order that lasts longer than Evers’ original emergency declaration because of a state law that gives the Department of Health Services wide latitude to fight public health threats.
That law says Palm’s department “may close schools and forbid public gatherings in schools, churches, and other places to control outbreaks and epidemics.” It also says the agency “may promulgate and enforce rules or issue orders for guarding against the introduction of any communicable disease into the state, for the control and suppression of communicable diseases (and) for the quarantine and disinfection of persons, localities and things infected or suspected of being infected by a communicable disease.”
GOP lawmakers dispute that Palm can put extensive restrictions in place on her own despite that law. They say she must abide by a separate law that requires agencies to write formal rules dealing with major issues.
Legislators can block such rules, so they have the ability to shape how they’re written.
The law they cite says “no agency may implement or enforce any standard, requirement, or threshold, including as a term or condition of any license issued by the agency, unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule.”
Evers and Palm argue the law on state rules doesn’t apply to what’s happening now. The Department of Health Services’ powers are spelled out in state law, so it doesn’t need separate rules about what it can do, they say.
Dispute over meetings
If Republicans win the case, they’ll try to reach a deal with Evers about new policies on when and how to reopen the state. If the two sides can’t agree, the state may go without any rules guiding the reopening.
Evers and GOP lawmakers have agreed on little during the 16 months they have shared power. Some of their disputes have been over whether and when to meet.
Evers on Friday proposed several times early next week when he could talk with legislative leaders. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn’t respond to that request, but sent a separate letter saying he wanted Evers to meet with the GOP leaders of his chamber.
Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said the speaker was unaware of the email from Evers’ office when he sent his letter. She didn’t say why a meeting hadn’t been set up if both sides say they wanted one.
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