Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds PHMDC on health orders, enforcement

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld the general ability of local public health agencies to issue public health orders to prevent the spread of disease. The decision was made Friday in response to a challenge to orders issued by Public Health Madison and Dane Co. to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

The agency responded to the decision by describing the steps it has taken to contain the pandemic as “decisive actions … to control an infectious disease and protect the health and welfare of our community. He credits those measures with helping the county record one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the state.

In their ruling, the justices wrote that state and county law allows PHMDC not only to issue the order unilaterally and without prior approval from city councils or county councils. The agency also has the power to impose civil penalties. The ruling rejected the argument that the latter violates the constitutional separation of powers.

Dane Co. Supervisor Jeff Weigand, who previously pushed to block PHMDC’s mask mandates, criticized the decision, saying it upsets the balance of power between the branches of government and puts too much power in the hands of unelected officials.

“This is exactly it [the Founding Fathers] had in mind when they wrote our Declaration of Independence, which states: “Governments are established among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” he said.

About the CEO of Dane Co. Joe Parisi, on the other hand, letting the health department make decisions about emergency health policy is based on science. Like PHMDC’s reference to Dane County’s case and hospitalization rates, Parisi added that the death rate remains lower in the county as well.

“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,” he continued.

Additionally, the state Supreme Court found no state law to preempt the county’s statute, Dane County Ordinance § 46.40, which directly authorizes the agency’s director to “immediately take all necessary measures for the prevention, suppression and control of communicable diseases in the county Dane, including banning public gatherings when deemed necessary to control outbreaks or epidemics.”

Saying that PHMDC officials are using their health authority “cautiously and effectively,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway echoed Parisi’s comments about the lower death rate relative to the rest of Wisconsin and credited them with the quick response to the pandemic.

“When Madison experienced its first case of COVID-19 in February 2020, our public health systems sprung into action to learn all they could about this new virus and its threat to our community,” she said.

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.

In his concurring opinion, Judge Brian Hagedorn indicated that the decision allowed the warrants to be issued generally. However, he wrote specific health department-imposed regulations can still run afoul of state or local laws, noting a previous state Supreme Court ruling that struck down one of PHMDC’s rules.

The ruling marks the culmination of a lawsuit filed by two parents in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs are challenging the Dane County Health Director’s orders banning indoor gatherings as unconstitutional.

Copyright 2022 WMTV. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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