The Wisconsin Supreme Court rules that local health officials can issue communicable disease orders

By Todd Richmond, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Local health officials can unilaterally issue disease-slowing orders, the state Supreme Court ruled July 8 in a ruling that upheld controversial orders limiting indoor gatherings and mandating masks that Dane County officials issued during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 4-3 decision affirmed that state law empowers local health officials to do what they deem necessary to stop communicable diseases without oversight from governing bodies such as city and county councils.

Liberal-leaning Justice Jill Karofsky wrote for the majority that Wisconsin law has clearly allowed public health officials to issue such orders since the state was a territory. She added that if local elected officials don’t like the orders, they can remove the health officer, creating strong protections for people.

“Today’s decision is a victory for every resident of our community,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “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.”

The ruling marks the culmination of a lawsuit filed by two parents in Dane County in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They challenged the orders Madison Public Health and Dane County Director Janelle Heinrich issued banning indoor gatherings, closing schools and mandating 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 all necessary measures for the prevention, suppression and control of communicable diseases” and a county ordinance that says disobeying her orders is illegal.

The parents argue that multiple sections of state law say that local legislatures, not health officials, must enact restrictions like the ones Heinrich is implementing.

The ruling marks a departure of sorts for the conservative-controlled Supreme Court. Since the pandemic began in the United States in March 2019, the court has struck down orders by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that required state residents to stay home, wear masks and limit the size of gatherings.

Justice Brian Hagedorn, a conservative who often acts as a swing vote, sided with Evers in support of the stay-at-home order but joined his fellow conservatives against the mask mandate and gathering restrictions. He switched sides again on Friday, siding with Liberals Karofsky, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Walsh Bradley in support of the authority of local health officials.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Freedom, a conservative law firm, represented the parents in the case. A company spokesman had no immediate comment.

Heinrich’s orders drew strong criticism. She told the Wisconsin State Journal that people called her and her staff evil Nazis in the emails. Protesters even gathered outside her home.

Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in dissent that Heinrich acted as a dictator, titling part of her opinion “The Tyranny of Heinrich.”

“There are no more appropriate words to describe the arrogance of power that Heinrich wields,” writes Rebecca Bradley.

Karofsky addressed Rebecca Bradley’s choice of words, calling them “a poor substitute for legal argument.”

“While the direct and implied claims that a local health official is a tyrant, autocrat, dictator and despot are fanciful, they do real harm to the public’s perception of the work of this court,” Karofsky wrote. “We must strive to be better models of respectful dialogue in order to maintain the public trust on which the legitimacy of this court rests.”

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