MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — Local health officials can unilaterally issue orders to slow disease, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision upholding controversial orders limiting indoor gatherings and mandating masks that officials of Dane County during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 4-3 decision confirms that state law gives local health officials the ability to do what they deem necessary to stop communicable diseases without oversight from governing bodies such as city councils and county governments.
Liberal-minded Justice Jill Karofsky wrote for the majority that Wisconsin law clearly empowers public health officials to issue such orders and has done so since the state was a territory. She added that if they don’t like the orders, elected local officials can remove the health officer to create strong protections for people.
“Today’s verdict is a win for every resident in our community,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “This decision ensures that our health department will be able to protect our community – and that decision-making remains science-based.”
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The ruling marks the culmination of a lawsuit filed by two parents in Dane County in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They questioned orders issued by Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich to lock down indoor gatherings, close schools and require masks in all indoor spaces open to the public. A Madison gym and a dance studio in Oregon, Wisconsin later joined the lawsuit.
Heinrich cited a section of state law that allows local health officials “to take such action as is necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases,” and a county ordinance that says disobeying their orders is illegal.
The parents argued that several sections of state law provide that local legislatures, not health officials, must enact restrictions like those introduced by Heinrich.
Friday’s decision was something of a departure from the Conservative-controlled Supreme Court. Since the pandemic began in the United States in March 2019, the court has overturned orders by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that required state residents to stay home, wear masks and limit the size of gatherings.
Judge Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who often serves as an alternate vote, sided with Evers in support of the stay-at-home order but joined his conservatives against the mask mandate and border-collecting. He switched sides again on Friday, siding with Liberals Karofsky, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley to maintain the authority of local health officials.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, represented the parents in the case. The firm’s assistant attorney, Luke Berg, said he was disappointed that the court “refused to strengthen critical safeguards and accountability for unelected health officials.”
Henry’s orders were heavily criticized. She told the Wisconsin State Journal that people emailed her and her associates as evil Nazis. Demonstrators even gathered in front of her house.
Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote dissentingly that Henrich acted like a dictator, captioning part of her opinion “Henry’s tyranny.”
“There are no more fitting words to describe Henry’s assumption of power,” wrote Rebecca Bradley.
Karofsky elaborated on Rebecca Bradley’s choice of words, calling her a “poor substitute for legal arguments.”
“While the direct and implied allegations that a local health official is a tyrant, an autocrat, a dictator and a despot are fantastic, they really damage the public perception of the work of this court,” Karofsky wrote. “We must strive to be better models of respectful dialogue in order to maintain public trust on which the legitimacy of this court rests.”
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