The Wisconsin Supreme Court has overturned the state’s stay-at-home order, ruling it “unlawful” and “unenforceable” in a high-profile win for the state’s Republican-led Legislature.
In a 4-3 decision Wednesday, the court ruled that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration overstepped its authority when the state Department of Health Services extended the order to May 26.
The ruling comes after the Legislature’s Republican leaders filed a lawsuit last month arguing the order would cost Wisconsin residents their jobs and hurt many companies, asserting that if it was left in place, “our State will be in shambles.”
The suit was filed specifically against state Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm and other health officials, who made the decision in mid-April to extend the state’s “Safer at Home” emergency order. At the same time as the extension, the state loosened some restrictions on certain businesses, including golf courses, public libraries, and arts and crafts stores.
But the justices wrote in their decision Wednesday that “an agency cannot confer on itself the power to dictate the lives of law-abiding individuals as comprehensively as the order does without reaching beyond the executive branch’s authority.”
Evers, who had ordered Palm to issue the stay-at-home order in late March, told CNN’s Don Lemon later Wednesday that the court’s ruling “puts our state into chaos.”
“Now we have no plan and no protections for the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said.
“When you have more people in a small space – I don’t care if it’s bars, restaurants or your home – you’re going to be able to spread the virus. And so now, today, thanks to the Republican legislators who convinced four Supreme Court justices to not look at the law but look at their political careers I guess – it’s a bad day for Wisconsin.”
“It’s the wild west,” he said.
And in a statement released separately Wednesday night, the governor encouraged people in his state to continue “to stay safer at home, practice social distancing, and limit travel, because folks, deadly viruses don’t wait around for politicians and bureaucrats to settle their differences or promulgate rules.”
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald claimed in a joint statement after filing their lawsuit that there was “immense frustration regarding the extension” of the order and that Evers “has denied the people a voice through this unprecedented administrative overreach.”
“Unfortunately, that leaves the legislature no choice but to ask the Supreme Court to rein in this obvious abuse of power,” they said.
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“Wisconsinites deserve certainty, transparency, and a plan to end the constant stream of executive orders that are eroding both the economy and their liberty even as the state is clearly seeing a decline in Covid infections.”
Wisconsin Democrats, however, have argued that the health crisis “will only get worse if we end Safer at Home before it’s safe to.”
President Donald Trump called the ruling a “win” for the state Thursday morning.
“The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!” he tweeted. His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, however, struck a more cautious tone, urging Americans to continue social distancing and washing their hands, and noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to wear a face mask in public.
“And in Wisconsin, the citizens of that state need to do the same because we do want to safely reopen and we can’t emphasize that enough,” McEnany said in an interview with CBS News.
Public health professionals have repeatedly stressed the dangers of relaxing social distancing measures too early.
Experts widely agree that states and localities will need robust testing and contact tracing programs in order to control the pandemic without strict social distancing measures, but many states – including Wisconsin – have reported shortages of critical supplies needed to run coronavirus tests.
That’s a problem because experts say the ability to quickly identify new coronavirus cases – and then quarantine those who might have been exposed – will be crucial to returning to normal life.
As of early Thursday morning, Wisconsin had more than 10,902 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 421 deaths, according to the state’s Department of Health Services.
This story has been updated with additional information and reaction.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.