Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers in the state Capitol. (Shutterstock)
Wisconsin Supreme Court chambers in the state Capitol. (Shutterstock)

Conservatives on the state’s high court have consistently ruled against public health restrictions implemented to guard against COVID-19.

Local public health officials cannot order schools to close for in-person instruction during an outbreak like the coronavirus pandemic, conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared in a Friday ruling

The 4-3 decision came six months after the Supreme Court heard arguments over the legality of an August 2020 health order requiring virtual instruction for grades 3-12 at all schools in Dane County. 

Conservative attorneys argued—and conservatives on the state’s high court agreed—that while state statutes give local health officers the ability to “inspect schools” and “do what is reasonable and necessary” to prevent outbreaks, only the state Department of Health Services can order school building closures. 

The court also ruled the order infringed on the religious freedom of parochial schools, even though the order explicitly exempted religious services from the restrictions.

“Those portions of [Dane County Health Officer Janel] Heinrich’s Order restricting or prohibiting in-person instruction are both statutorily and constitutionally unlawful, and are hereby vacated,” conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority. Bradley previously compared Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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In a dissent, liberal justice Rebecca Dallet said the health order was lawful because state law doesn’t explicitly prohibit school closures. 

“The statute’s plain language, its history, and numerous related statutes all confirm that local health officers may close schools, so long as doing so is at least reasonable and necessary to suppress disease,” Dallet wrote.

Conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have consistently ruled against public health officials throughout the pandemic, and conservative attorneys have been eager to bring cases before the justices. At one point, there were five Supreme Court cases pending against COVID mitigation measures ranging from Evers’ statewide mask order to local school closures.

As more cases have been brought forward, local and state health authorities alike have seen their powers gradually erode.

In March, the court struck down Evers’ mask order, ending the only remaining statewide COVID safeguard in a ruling that said governors cannot issue repeated emergency declarations for the same overarching crisis. A few weeks later, justices ruled the Department of Health Services cannot limit capacity in places like bars, restaurants, and other businesses.