(Reuters) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a statewide coronavirus stay-at-home order on Wednesday, siding with a legal challenge from Republican lawmakers who said the state’s top public health official exceeded her authority by imposing the restrictions.
While lockdown orders meant to quell the pandemic have been challenged in court in several states, the decision in Wisconsin marked the first such lawsuit to succeed in a larger political debate over social distancing that has grown increasingly partisan.
At stake in Wisconsin was a “Safer at Home” order that had been extended through May 26 by the state’s secretary for the Department of Health Services, Andrea Palm, acting at the direction of Governor Tony Evers.
The court ruled that while Evers, a first-term Democrat, possesses emergency powers as governor, the stay-at-home directive was effectively imposed by Palm, whose discretion as a political appointee is more limited.
“We further conclude that Palm’s order confining all people to their homes, forbidding travel and closing businesses exceeded the statutory authority … upon which Palm claims to rely,” the court said.
Evers said he was “disappointed” by the ruling but urged the public to adhere to social distancing practices as the best way to curb the spread of a highly contagious and potentially deadly respiratory virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure.
“Just because the Supreme Court says it’s okay to open, doesn’t mean that science does,” the governor wrote on Twitter. “We need everyone to continue doing their part to keep our families, our neighbors and our communities safe by continuing to stay safer at home, practice social distancing, and limit travel.”
The decision comes as state leaders have wrestled with how and when to relax mandatory business closures and other restrictions on social gatherings that have proved successful in slowing the outbreak but have also ravaged the economy.
President Donald Trump, who had staked his November re-election bid on the strength of the U.S. economy, has pressed states to forge ahead with reopening – a sentiment shared by fellow Republicans in many of the states where the U.S. outbreak was less dire in its early weeks.
Democratic governors, many whose states were among the hardest hit, have tended to move more cautiously.
Public health experts have warned that prematurely relaxing constraints on commerce and social life, without vastly expanded diagnostic testing and other precautions firmly in place, risks fueling a resurgence of the virus.
As of Thursday, the number of known coronavirus infections in Wisconsin rose to just over 11,000 cases, including 421 deaths, according to a Reuters tally. More than 83,000 people have perished nationwide.
The lockdown has forced millions of Americans out of work in a matter of weeks, creating a level of joblessness unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The two highest-ranking leaders of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature, House Speaker Robin Vos and Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, praised the ruling.
The decision, they said in a joint statement, “allows people to once again gather with their loved ones or visit their places of worship without the fear of violating a state order.”
They urged small business owners to follow guidelines issued by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation on how to safely open up the state.
“Wisconsin now joins multiple states that don’t have extensive ‘stay at home orders’ but can continue to follow good practices of social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizer usage and telecommuting,” Vos and Fitzgerald said.
The Wisconsin legislature filed its lawsuit on April 21.
The state Supreme Court appeared to strike down the order with immediate effect, although the legislature had asked for six days to work out a new plan with Evers.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; editing by Bill Tarrant, Leslie Adler and Raju Gopalakrishnan