States Face Numerous Lawsuits Filed Over Lockdowns
Numerous state and local governments are facing lawsuits over their stay-at-home orders from citizens and businesses that want the lockdowns to end. So far, litigants have had little success overturning these orders in court with one exception in Virgnia. However, they are continuing to threaten legal action. Nonetheless, even the most stringent of the lockdown orders are being upheld by the courts. The most recent government to win in court was Michigan, which is home of some of the toughest mandatory quarantines in the country.
Lockdowns have become a political issue as public health and safety has now become part of the polarized debate in this country. Stay-at-home orders have been portrayed as violating civil liberties. Meanwhile, some in the U.S. feel that the economy takes precedence. As a result, they have pushed for states to reopen for business.
A Michigan Court Rules in Favor of the Governor
In Michigan, there was a lawsuit filed against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, alleging that she violated the constitutional rights of her citizens with her lockdown order. Michigan has been the battleground for this split of opinion as right-wing activists have gathered in protest brandishing weapons. Michigan has seen over 40,000 cases of coronavirus with nearly 4,000 deaths. Governor Whitmer has taken a strong stance that is perhaps the toughest one in the entire country.
Here, the lawsuit alleged that the Emergency Management Act, which was actually an order issued by the governor, took away the legislature's power. The plaintiffs claimed that a lockdown of this magnitude should have been something that was part of a law that was passed and signed by the governor. The lawsuit also claimed that the order violated their procedural and substantive due process.
The judge held that, even if the order violated those constitutional rights, that it was subordinate to the overall public good. The paramount good here is the fact that the public has the right to be free from the virus and not be sickened by the pandemic. Further, keeping the public safe is well within the power of the state government, and it is a part of the way that it protects the health and welfare of the residents.
The court left it open that the governor could possibly violate the law with a stay-at-home order. However, here it found that her actions were entirely legal and followed the procedures and criteria necessary for a state of emergency. This was not an arbitrary exercise which would have broken the law.
Virginia's Governor Wins One Lawsuit While Losing Another
These lawsuits have been repeated throughout many states and counties in the country. For example, in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam's order closing all non-essential businesses in the state was challenged by a gym owner. The plaintiff argued that Northam's closure overstepped his legal authority, and that the gym should be exempted from the governor's order. The gym owner was represented in his lawsuit by two GOP state senators who were looking to score political points against the governor.
The lawsuit alleged that the governor was "picking winners and losers" between businesses by allowing some to stay open while closing others. The governor's order had allowed essential businesses to remain open. It defined essential businesses, but the definition in the order omitted gyms.
Just like the Michigan lawsuit, the court in Virginia reached nearly the same exact ruling. The court found that lockdowns to keep people safe from a pandemic are well within the power of a state to preserve the general health and welfare.
The court has not yet issued a formal decision, but it cited the multitude of lockdowns across 40 other states in the U.S. The court stated that the governor did have the authority to do this.
Virginia has seen several lawsuits filed by businesses that were seeking a way out of the statewide closure. Last week, a shooting range in Lynchburg successfully persuaded a judge to exempt it from the order. The judge in the case only ruled in favor of this shooting range, but its reasoning could be broadly applied to all businesses of this type in the state. The court here had found that the governor encroached on the rights of gun owners when it deemed the shooting range a non-essential business. Since the current Virginia order remains in place until June 10, it is likely that there will be numerous additional lawsuit filed in the coming weeks.
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