Lawsuit over Walz pandemic powers will continue

A group of people stand outside of a restaurant.
Gov. Tim Walz joined the owners of Casper’s and Runyon’s Nook in St. Paul in Nov. 2020, and called for a relief package for restaurants and other small businesses as COVID-19 cases have grown and the state has had to dial up restrictions on hospitality and other businesses. The Minnesota Supreme Court says a lawsuit over Walz's use of emergency powers should proceed.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated 4:10 p.m.

A holdover lawsuit from Minnesota’s pandemic peacetime emergency will go on after the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a key question about the governor’s authority remains unsettled.

The lawsuit brought by a group of citizens and aided by a conservative law firm challenged Gov. Tim Walz over his declaration of an emergency and over his use of that emergency to impose restrictions, including a mask mandate.

Justices decided that litigation over specific measures Walz took during COVID-19 is now moot, given that they’ve lapsed. But the high court said the governor’s use of the Emergency Management Act to justify his executive actions is still a relevant question.

It is a partial reversal of an earlier Court of Appeals decision, which had dismissed the claims.

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“Given that the peacetime emergency and the consequent executive orders impacted every Minnesotan and the import of those decisions, the legal question of whether the act authorizes such actions is undoubtedly an issue of statewide significance,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court.

“We also conclude that this important legal issue should be decided now so that any lack of clarity can be settled before it is necessary for a governor to invoke the act again.”

The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals to decide whether the Emergency Management Act can be invoked during a public health emergency or if an “act of nature” is more narrow.

Gildea wrote that the question to be decided “is a straightforward one of statutory interpretation asking the court to decide the scope of the power the Legislature delegated to the governor in the act.”

Attorney Doug Seaton of the Upper Midwest Law Center, which represented the 16 citizens and businesses who sued, called the ruling a “significant victory.”

“We have consistently argued that Governor Walz does not have the power to declare a peacetime emergency in response to a public health crisis, and we look forward to this matter being promptly decided in the Court of Appeals,” Seaton said in a written statement.

Walz declared a peacetime emergency in March 2020 and it remained in place until July 2021. During that span, he issued dozens of executive orders that carried the force of law.

Walz and his attorneys have long argued that restricting public gatherings, limiting business operations and requiring mask use were important ways to contain the spread of COVID-19. His critics said he went too far and took unconstitutional actions. In state and federal cases, Walz largely held off the legal challenges during the height of the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Walz issued a statement in response to the latest ruling.

“The governor’s actions during the pandemic have been upheld by the courts again and again,” the governor’s office statement read. “The issue on remand is one that Minnesota appellate courts have not yet addressed. We agree that it’s important and are confident in our position.”

Republican state lawmakers have argued for curtailing executive authority but no major changes have occurred.