Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' administration overstepped its authority when it extended the governor's stay-at-home order through the end of May, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The 4-3 ruling marks a defeat for Evers as Republican legislators, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and with the aid of the conservative-controlled high court, continue to chip away at the Democratic governor’s powers.
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 percent in March to 69 percent 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, granted the injunction and the six-day stay. The order will remain in effect until May 20.
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.
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.
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.
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.