Wisconsin Supreme Court blocks Evers' stay-home extension

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MADISON, Wis. (AP/WMTV) -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ coronavirus stay-at-home order Wednesday, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the mandate for another month without consulting legislators.

The 4-3 ruling essentially reopens the state, lifting caps on the size of gatherings, allowing people to travel as they please and allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, including bars and restaurants. Local governments can still impose their own health restrictions, however. Dane County officials issued a local order minutes after the ruling came down imposing a mandate identical to now-invalidated state stay-at-home order.

Evers issued a stay-at-home order in March that closed schools and nonessential businesses. The closures battered the state economy, but Evers argued they were necessary to slow the virus’ spread. The order was supposed to lift on April 24, but Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Andrea Palm, an Evers appointee, extended it to May 26.

Republicans, worried about the economic fallout, asked the Supreme Court on April 21 to block the extension. The Republicans said Palm exceeded her authority and argued that the extension amounts to an administrative rule, requiring legislative approval.

Evers’ administration countered that state law clearly gives the executive branch broad authority to quickly enact emergency measures to control communicable diseases. Attorney General Josh Kaul also noted that Evers’ order was similar to that in at least 42 other states and has saved many lives.

Nearly seven out of 10 Wisconsin residents still back Evers’ “safer at home” order, based on a Marquette University Law School poll released Tuesday. However, the support had dropped from 86% in March to 69% in May, driven by increasing opposition from Republicans, the poll showed.

The ruling doesn’t mean that Evers’ order is immediately void. Republicans had sought a temporary injunction to block the extension, with a six-day stay to give state health officials time to go through the rule-making process. The court, controlled 5-2 by conservative justices, apparently rejected the injunction and the six-day stay.

The GOP has not offered any alternative plans. The state’s chamber of commerce has suggested allowing all businesses to open at once while compelling higher-risk establishments and operations to take increasingly strict mitigation measures such as requiring employees to use protective gear.

MORE: About 1,500 people protest 'Safer at Home' order at Wisconsin Capitol, while others call for safety first

The GOP move against Evers mirrors actions taken by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states, most notably against the Democratic governors in nearby “blue wall” states Michigan and Pennsylvania. All three are critical presidential battlegrounds in November.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

MORE: Dane Co. weighs local restrictions if 'Safer at Home' struck down

The GOP has been working to weaken Evers’ powers since he ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.

During Walker’s final weeks in office, Republicans adopted a set of laws that prohibited Evers from ordering the attorney general to withdraw from lawsuits, a move designed to prevent the governor from pulling Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. The state Supreme Court has upheld those laws.

The high court also backed Republicans over Evers in the GOP’s insistence on holding in-person voting for April’s presidential primary despite the health risks of the coronavirus.

MORE: Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear oral arguments for 'Safer at Home' lawsuit

Separately, the court is considering a lawsuit from conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty that seeks to to rein in the governor’s partial veto powers.

According to State Attorney General Josh Kaul in a statement after the ruling was made:


"Over a week ago, I called on the legislature to act immediately. Unfortunately, it failed to do so, and Republicans in the legislature still have offered no plan to address the coronavirus. They can’t keep waiting to do so. In the middle of the fight against this virus, we need reasonable rules in place that protect Wisconsinites’ health. In the meantime, I ask all Wisconsinites to continue helping to fight the coronavirus by socially distancing and following other recommendations from public health experts.”

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NBC15's Jackson Danbeck and Nick Viviani contributed to this report