The Wisconsin Supreme Court released its ruling Wednesday that Gov. Tony Evers unlawfully issued multiple public health emergency orders in response to the pandemic. The ruling also ends the statewide mask mandate.
The decision eliminates the latest mask mandate, which was set to expire on April 5. Evers will not be able to issue new orders unless the Republican-controlled legislature votes to extend them through a joint resolution.
“Although conflict between Governor Evers and the legislature over the State's COVID-19 pandemic response is often presented as partisan in nature, this court's review is not. This court does not referee partisan battles; our duty is to ensure that each branch of government respects the constitutional limits of its authority,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in the concurring opinion.
Bradley said that the decision reaffirms the principle that the governor cannot rely on emergency powers “indefinitely” that the court established when it struck down Evers’ “stay-at-home” order in May.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote in dissent that the majority’s decision “places yet another roadblock to an effective governmental response to COVID-19.” Bradley said that Evers did not extend a pre-existing state of emergency, but issued new declarations based on new underlying occurrences.
“This is no run-of-the-mill case. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that so far has claimed the lives of over a half million people in this country,” Bradley wrote.
Evers and state Republican leaders have been at odds for months over the mask mandate and the governor’s legal authority.
The legislature voted to repeal the mask mandate in February, but Evers immediately issued a new executive order and a new emergency order requiring face coverings. The court ruled that the executive order exceeded the governor’s powers and was unlawful.
Local mask mandates would stay in place under the court ruling, including Dane County’s emergency order that requires face coverings and will remain in effect until April 7.
In a statement, Evers encouraged residents to continue to wear masks.
"Since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve worked to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe, and I’ve trusted the science and public health experts to guide our decision making. Our fight against COVID-19 isn’t over — while we work to get folks vaccinated as quickly as we can, we know wearing a mask saves lives, and we still need Wisconsinites to mask up so we can beat this virus and bounce back from this pandemic," Evers said.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he feared that Wisconsinites' health and safety would be at greater risk.
"I am deeply disappointed in today’s decision by conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They got it 100% backwards today. The majority’s decision pretends that a pandemic is unchanging and ignores the devastating human impact of COVID-19. And it ensures that Wisconsin’s response to future pandemics will be more complicated and take more time, which in turn will cost more lives," Hintz said.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the court's ruling ended a "constitutional crisis" in the state.
"Today’s ruling vindicates the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government and will expand freedom and opportunity for the people of Wisconsin. As we work to fully and safely reopen our state, we trust our residents to follow CDC guidelines when appropriate, get vaccinated when ready and always employ common sense," LeMahieu said.
On Monday, President Joe Biden called on governors and mayors to reinstate mask mandates over fears of another surge, according to the New York Times. Other states, including Texas, have rolled back COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates.
On Tuesday, Evers and state health officials urged Wisconsinites to continue to wear masks and limit travel over the Easter holiday. New confirmed cases of COVID-19 have increased slightly over the past week. The seven-day percent positive rate climbed to 2.8% on Tuesday, the highest rate since mid-February.
This story will be updated.
state news writer