Local leaders applaud Supreme Court ruling upholding public health powers

MADISON, Wis. – Local leaders are calling the state Supreme Court’s ruling that public health officials do have the power to create and enforce health orders a “win for every resident of our community.”

In a 4-3 decision Friday, the court ruled that Public Health Madison & Dane County not only has the authority to issue public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic, but also has the authority to impose civil penalties for failure to comply with the order.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi was one of the local officials celebrating the decision.

“This decision ensures that our public health department will have the ability to keep our community safe — and that decision-making will remain science-based,” Parisi said in a statement released by his office Friday morning. “Our public health department’s careful, deliberate and science-based actions during the pandemic are the primary reason Dane County has one of the lowest per capita COVID death rates in the nation throughout the pandemic.”

In an interview with News 3 Now, he called the decision “critically important.”

“This allows public health to make science-based decisions when responding to anything that may arise,” Parisi said.

The county executive also took aim at some of the politically charged language in the decision. Judge Rebecca Bradley wrote that PHMDC director Janelle Heinrich acted as a “dictator.”

RELATED: State Supreme Court rules PHMDC has power to impose health orders

“I think this is another example of the nasty hyperbole that we’re seeing … in politics and elsewhere today,” Parisi said. “You know, it’s a Supreme Court justice.”

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway echoed those sentiments, also applauding the county and city for “following the science.”

“When Madison experienced its first case of COVID-19 in February 2020, our public health systems scrambled to learn all they could about this new virus and its threat to our community. Madison Dane County Public Health follows emerging science, implements best practices and uses its authority wisely and effectively,” the mayor said.

PHMDC’s public health orders, which limit gatherings and mandate the use of masks indoors at various times from 2020 until the end of February 2022, when their final order expires, have been a constant target of conservative law firms that have tried to argued that health officials lacked the authority to impose such restrictions because they were not elected officials.

PHMDC Director Janelle Heinrich objected, citing state law that says public health officials have the right to “take all necessary measures to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases.” Ultimately, a majority of Supreme Court justices agreed.

“We are pleased with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ability of local health officials to issue orders to protect the public in health emergencies,” PHMDC officials said in a statement Friday after the decision was announced. “Madison and Dane County Public Health took decisive action during this pandemic to control a contagious disease and protect the health and well-being of our community.”

The court had to weigh in on the assumption that public health leaders are not elected and therefore should not be able to do things like require masks, close schools and shut down public gatherings. It’s a position Dane County Board Supervisor Jeff Weigand wholeheartedly agrees with.

“Instead of taking input from the public, instead of holding public hearings, instead of sharing data and reasoning behind their policies … I’m afraid they’re going to abuse that,” Weigand said.

Now he hopes the state’s laws can be changed.

The state’s highest court said last December it would hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Freedom on behalf of two Dane County residents and a business.

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