Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling overturning stay-at-home order highlights widening US debate on pandemic

Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling overturning stay-at-home order highlights widening US debate on pandemic

WASHINGTON – The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision overturning the state’s stay-at-home orders added fuel Thursday to a widening U.S. debate over how and when to lift restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

President Donald Trump in a tweet called the Wisconsin ruling a win for the state, adding that “people want to get on with their lives.” But Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, warned that the decision by the court – an elected body that tilts conservative – would put “public health and lives at serious risk.”

Across the country, tensions have flared as people experienced months of restrictions to combat a virus that has infected 1.4 million and killed more than 85,000. Health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, have credited the lockdowns with saving lives and have said the death rate could march higher if the restrictions are eased too quickly.

But the stay-at-home orders have walloped the economy and sent the U.S. unemployment rate soaring to 14.7%, the highest level since the Great Depression.

Experts said the decision highlights the balance that officials face between public health and individual rights while grappling with how and when to reopen.

“The only response to the disease is something that grates at Americans’ sensibilities and national identity, which is personal freedom and personal liberty,” said Kent Greenfield, a law professor at Boston College. “The tensions are likely to grow as the summer heats up.”

Public health vs. individual liberties

Elizabeth Goitein, who codirects the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said there have been a number of lawsuits in states exploring how to balance public health orders against individual rights.

“We’ve never seen restrictions imposed by a state for public health reasons as draconian as the ones we’re seeing now,” said Goitein, a former Justice Department lawyer and Senate counsel. “But there’s a reason for that. For many, many decades, we haven’t seen a public health threat as significant as what we’re seeing now. There’s always a balancing between public health and safety on the one hand, and individual liberties on the other hand.”

Protesters from a grassroots organization called REOPEN NC protests the North Carolina coronavirus lockdown at a parking lot adjacent to the North Carolina State Legislature in Raleigh, N.C., on April 14, 2020

Activists, including some with rifles, have rallied against restrictions in states such as Michigan, Virginia and Texas.

Trump, who has encouraged protests, has made his call for a faster reopening central to his election-year campaign message.

Experts said the decision highlights the balance that officials face between public health and individual rights while grappling with how and when to reopen.

Until scientists develop a vaccine or better treatment, public health officials have said staying home, keeping at least 6 feet apart in public and avoiding large gatherings are the best ways to prevent the spread of disease. At least 42 states adopted stay-at-home orders, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

AG Barr likens restrictions to house arrests

U.S. Attorney General William Barr told radio host Hugh Hewitt on April 22 that the Justice Department would review state restrictions for the virus that he likened to house arrest because “federal constitutional rights don’t go away in an emergency.”

But former Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the Wisconsin decision “callously puts lives at risk.”

Traditionally, police powers such as protecting public health and safety take priority over individual rights when the government can demonstrate a compelling reason for restrictions, experts said.

A New Hampshire court denied March 25 an emergency motion to overturn a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused April 13 to overturn restrictions from Gov. Tom Wolf in a case from four businesses and an individual who had argued he didn’t have the authority to close the businesses.

“The claims that people are making that their constitutional rights are being violated are not particularly strong, in my view,” Greenfield said. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t strong as a political or a cultural matter – they are quite strong as a cultural and political matter.”

The Wisconsin case was somewhat unusual because it pitted the Republican legislature against the Democrat administration in a case decided by an elected Supreme Court. The same four justices who overturned the coronavirus restrictions also prevented Evers from postponing the state’s April 7 primary because of concerns about protecting the health of voters.

“These guys have been at loggerheads for a long time,” said Susan Sullivan Lagon, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “It’s a weird circumstance.”

Courts may continue to have a role in gauging restrictions as protesters are arrested. But legal experts said decisions will eventually become political for governors and legislatures to resolve.

“I think ultimately the question of when and whether states lift the restrictions will probably be more likely decided by politics than the courts,” Goitein said. “There are going to be plenty of states in which courts uphold these restrictions, but there may still be political pressure on governors to lift them.”

Greenfield said most courts would recognize the compelling interest in upholding restrictions. Polls suggest Americans remain concerned about the health threat, even as restrictions begin to ease.

“This is going to be mostly a political battle," Greenfield said.

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/05/14/coronavirus-wisconsin-supreme-court-enters-widening-fight-pandemic/5192518002/

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