Chambers of the Wisconsin Supreme Court inside the state Capitol building in Madison.

Challenge can’t be made in-person because of the pandemic

The Wisconsin Supreme Court late Friday announced it would hear oral arguments next week on the effort by the Republican-controlled Legislature to block the extension of the safer-at-home order by Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.

The proceedings will begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The arguments against the pandemic safeguards will not be made in-person. The court is citing the pandemic as a reason to hold the hearing by videoconference. The usual hearing room will not be open to the public. The proceeding will be broadcast on WisconsinEye. 

Evers’ order, which was carried out by the secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services, was originally set to expire April 24. On April 16, the governor directed Andrea Palm to extend most of the restrictions on large gatherings and non-essential businesses to May 26. The lawsuit was brought against the top three officials with DHS, not Evers personally.

On April 21, Republicans filed their lawsuit. They claim Secretary-designee Palm and other top officials violated rules governing emergency rule-making processes and did not follow rule-making authority. This essentially cut the Legislature out of the overall decision-making process, argue the lawmakers.  

Evers has repeatedly defended the actions of his top health official. 

“She has made difficult but important decisions,” Evers told the media after the suit was filed by Republicans. “I would put her up against any health secretary in the county.” 

Evers also argues that following the usual emergency rule-making process that Republicans prefer to the governor’s issuance of executive orders is too time-consuming a process when dealing with a fast-moving pandemic. At a minimum, the rule-making process takes 20 days, and that is without any disagreements over the policy or the politics of a proposed rule. 

Roughly 70 public health, faith- and healthcare-based organizations filed briefs in support of the extension with the court Wednesday. 

Evers and the Legislature have a bumpy track record but Republican Assembly leaders appear to want to give another round of talks a try. 

Shortly after the news was made public, ranking Republican members of the Assembly released a letter addressed to Evers requesting a meeting to discuss a “unified, bipartisan approach to the state’s coronavirus pandemic response.”

“In these times of crisis, we understand how difficult decisions like these are — but we are all in this together. That’s why it is our hope that we can begin direct conversations with you as soon as possible,” the leaders stated in their letter.

On Thursday, the Assembly Committee on State Affairs held a seven-hour-long informational meeting where the business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s “Back to Business” plan was discussed as a means to slowly, region-by-region reopen the state.

As a part of their letter, the leaders provided a summary of the hearing to the governor to provide a foundation for future discussions.

“Right now, business owners are seeking any kind of guidance, clarity or timeline. Without any level of certainty, people are beginning to lose hope. With no end of the shutdown in the foreseeable future, there is a realistic chance that many businesses will close for good.”

The GOP leaders of the Assembly are requesting to meet with the governor early next week.

“We look forward to working with you, your administration, health experts and business leaders to help make a better tomorrow for all of Wisconsin,” the leaders stated.

The committee’s Democratic members released a statement calling the WMC plan “watered down” and lacking the necessary testing, tracking and other measures needed to protect customers, workers and communities that could be overwhelmed by a local outbreak. They say they hope any follow-up hearing by the committee will include groups missing from the GOP guest list on Thursday, especially health care professionals.