The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority strikes down state stay-home order

Lame-duck Justice Daniel Kelly, who just lost election in a landslide, cast the deciding vote.

On Wednesday evening, Republicans on the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a broad order striking down that state’s stay-at-home order, which was issued by the head of the state’s health department to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Among other things, the court’s decision concludes that the state health department exceeded its authority by instructing people to stay at home, and by “forbidding travel and closing businesses” deemed nonessential.

The case is Wisconsin Legislature v. Palm.

The Court’s order was 4-3, with Justice Brian Hagedorn, a Republican initially appointed to a lower state court by former Gov. Scott Walker (R), writing one of three dissenting opinions. Justice Daniel Kelly, a lame duck who recently lost an election to retain his seat by nearly 11 points, cast the key fourth vote to strike down the stay-at-home order. If not for a Wisconsin law that allows Kelly to serve until August, the stay-at-home order may well have been upheld.

The decision appears to be animated by the kind of political considerations that are more at home on conservative talk radio than in a court of law. During oral arguments last week, when a lawyer defending the stay-at-home order pointed out that there was recently an outbreak of coronavirus in Brown County, Wisconsin, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack dismissed the significance of that outbreak because it primarily impacted factory workers.

“These were due to the meatpacking, though,” Roggensack said. “That’s where Brown County got the flare. It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”

At that same oral argument, Justice Rebecca Bradley compared the state’s stay-at-home order to “‘assembling together and placing under guard all those of Japanese ancestry in assembly centers’ during World War II.”

The majority opinion, by Chief Justice Roggensack, is not at all clear as to whether this decision takes effect immediately, or whether the stay-at-home order remains in effect for another week. Roggensack also concludes that Andrea Palm, the head of the state’s health department, exceeded her lawful authority. But then Roggensack’s opinion contains this extraordinary line: “We do not define the precise scope of DHS authority under Wis. Stat. § 252.02(3), (4) and (6) because clearly Order 28 went too far.”

Thus, as Hagedorn notes in dissent, the majority opinion “has failed to provide almost any guidance for what the relevant laws mean, and how our state is to govern through this crisis moving forward.” Wisconsin now has no stay-at-home order preventing the spread of coronavirus — or maybe it does have such an order for just one more week. And it is not at all clear which powers the state health department still has to fight the spread of a pandemic.

Moreover, one consequence of the Court’s decision is that if Palm does want to take additional steps to fight the spread of a deadly disease, she will likely need to jump through a series of procedural hoops that, at best, take weeks to complete. And her decisions can now be overridden by Republicans in the state legislature.

In the meantime, there is no court decision ordering coronavirus to stop spreading.

State law gives Palm broad authority to fight a pandemic

Wisconsin law gives the state Department of Health Services extraordinarily broad power — or, at least, it did until today — to confront a public health crisis.

Among other things, the department may “close schools and forbid public gatherings in schools, churches, and other places to control outbreaks and epidemics.” It may “issue orders … for the control and suppression of communicable diseases,” and these orders “may be made applicable to the whole or any specified part of the state.” And, on top of all that, an additional provision permits the health department to “authorize and implement all emergency measures necessary to control communicable diseases.”

Yet the majority opinion in Wisconsin Legislature diminishes this power considerably by imposing procedural limits on Palm’s authority. Much of Roggensack’s majority opinion rests on a distinction between “rules” and mere “orders.”

The reason this distinction matters is that a mere “order” from a state agency can go into effect immediately, but a “rule” can take weeks or even months to promulgate. Even under an expedited process for “emergency” rules, a state agency must first draft a “statement of the scope of the proposed emergency rule.” That statement must be reviewed and approved by the governor and the state Department of Administration, and then appear in an official state publication that only publishes once a week.

After the statement is published, the agency must complete a 10-day waiting period before it is allowed to move forward, with no apparent way to waive this requirement. And then the rule can be delayed even longer if certain legislative leaders require the agency to hold a public hearing on the new rule. Then the new rule can potentially be suspended by a legislative committee — which may require the agency to start this process all over again.

Nevertheless, the Court’s Republican majority concludes that Palm’s stay-at-home order exceeds her power to issue mere orders. Under the Court’s decision, any order that applies to a class of people that “is described in general terms,” and that can be expanded to more individuals, must be issued as a rule. That means that new efforts to fight the coronavirus are likely to be delayed for weeks or more.

There are several problems with the Court’s conclusion, but the biggest one is that it is inconsistent with the text of the state’s public health law. That law gives the health department the power to “promulgate and enforce rules or issue orders for guarding against the introduction of any communicable disease into the state” or “for the control and suppression of communicable diseases,” and it provides that “any rule or order may be made applicable to the whole or any specified part of the state.”

Thus, the statute explicitly states that the health department may issue an “order” and not just a “rule” that is applicable to the entire state.

As Justice Rebecca Dallet notes in one of three dissenting opinions, the state legislature purposely added this language to the state’s public health law to expand the health department’s power to issue statewide orders. “Originally,” Dallet writes, the state public health law “did not allow for the issuance of orders; DHS could only ‘adopt and enforce rules and regulations.’” And these rules had to comply with limits similar to the ones the state Supreme Court imposed in Wisconsin Legislature.

But “in 1982, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the Legislature amended the [public health law] to explicitly include as part of DHS’s power the ability ‘to issue orders’ of statewide application.” So the state legislature explicitly amended the law during a previous public health crisis to give the health department a broad power to issue statewide orders. The Court’s decision in Wisconsin Legislature effectively nullifies that 1982 amendment.

The Court’s decision is incompetently drafted

Having stripped the state health department of much of its authority, and having done so in the middle of the pandemic, the majority opinion then descends into confusion.

For one thing, it is not at all clear if the Court’s decision takes effect immediately, or if it does not take effect for several days.

Although the Republican-controlled state legislature, which is the plaintiff in this case, requested a six-day stay of the Court’s decision, the majority opinion does not grant such a stay. Nevertheless, Roggensack, who wrote the majority opinion, also wrote a separate concurring opinion where she states that “although our declaration of rights is effective immediately, I would stay future actions to enforce our decision until May 20, 2020.”

So it is unclear whether Roggensack voted to grant a stay or not. She authored the majority opinion, which does not grant a stay. But she also wrote a vague concurring opinion saying that she “would stay” enforcement of the Court’s decision.

Roggensack’s decision to cast Schrödinger’s vote inspired an incredulous dissent from Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. “Assuming Chief Justice Roggensack is actually voting for a stay, as her concurrence seemingly indicates, there appear to be four votes for issuing a stay (Chief Justice Roggensack and Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Dallet, and Hagedorn),” Bradley writes. “So, is there a stay or isn’t there? It can’t be both ways.”

Similarly, after Roggensack’s majority opinion concludes that the health department must use a “rule” and not a mere “order” if it wants to hand down something like the stay-at-home order, Roggensack then tacks on several additional pages concluding that the health department’s power to issue rules also must be limited. That’s the section that concludes with a declaration that “we do not define the precise scope of DHS authority.” And it’s the section that inspired Hagedorn to write that the majority “has failed to provide almost any guidance for what the relevant laws mean, and how our state is to govern through this crisis moving forward.”

This decision is a failure of democracy

The plaintiff in this lawsuit is the Wisconsin state legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. But the Wisconsin legislature is one of the most egregiously gerrymandered bodies in the nation. In 2018, Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the popular vote for the Wisconsin state Assembly, but Republicans won 63 of the body’s 99 seats.

Similarly, it is likely that the reason the Court did not vote 4-3 to uphold Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order is that Justice-elect Jill Karofsky, who defeated Justice Kelly in an April election, has not yet taken her seat.

Because Kelly will continue to sit for months as a lame duck, the state health department has now been stripped of much of its power to fight a deadly virus.

 

Rotten boroughs

The term rotten borough came into use in the 18th century; it meant a parliamentary borough with a tiny electorate, so small that voters were susceptible to control in a variety of ways, as it had declined in population and importance since its early days. The word “rotten” had the connotation of corruption as well as long-term decline. In such boroughs most or all of the few electors could not vote as they pleased, due to the lack of a secret ballot and their dependency on the “owner” of the borough. Only rarely were the views or personal character of a candidate taken into consideration, except by the minority of voters who were not beholden to a particular interest.

Typically, rotten boroughs had gained their representation in Parliament when they were more flourishing centres, but the borough’s boundaries had never been updated, or else they had become depopulated or even deserted over the centuries. Some had once been important places or had played a major role in England’s history, but had fallen into insignificance as for example industry moved away. For example, in the 12th century Old Sarum had been a busy cathedral city, reliant on the wealth expended by its own Sarum Cathedral within its city precincts, but it was abandoned when the present Salisbury Cathedral was built on a new site nearby (“New Sarum”), which immediately attracted merchants and workers who built up a new town around it. Despite this dramatic loss of population, the constituency of Old Sarum retained its right to elect two MPs.

Many such rotten boroughs were controlled by landowners and peers who might give the seats in Parliament to their like-minded friends or relations, or who went to Parliament themselves, if they were not already members of the House of Lords. They also commonly sold them for money or other favours; the peers who controlled such boroughs had a double influence in Parliament as they themselves held seats in the House of Lords. This patronage was based on property rights which could be inherited and passed on to heirs, or else sold, like any other form of property.

Republicans Don’t Believe in Democracy

Do Democrats understand what they’re facing?

Item: Last week Republicans in the North Carolina House used the occasion of 9/11 to call a surprise votepassing a budget bill with a supermajority to override the Democratic governor’s veto. They were able to do this only because most Democrats were absent, some of them attending commemorative events; the Democratic leader had advised members that they didn’t need to be present because, he says, he was assured there would be no votes that morning.

Item: Also last week, Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to turn over a whistle-blower complaint that the intelligence community’s inspector general found credible and of “urgent concern.” We don’t know what the whistle-blower was warning about, but we do know that the law is clear: Such complaints must be referred to Congress, no exceptions allowed.

On the surface, these stories may seem to be about very different things. The fight in North Carolina is basically about the G.O.P.’s determination to deny health care to low-income Americans; the governor had threatened to veto any budget that didn’t expand Medicaid. The whistle-blower affair probably involves malfeasance by high government officials, quite possibly President Trump, that in some way threatens national security.

What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.

Similarly, last year America’s voters chose to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. This still leaves Democrats without the ability to pass legislation, since Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But the House, by law, has important additional powers — the right to be informed of what’s going on in the executive branch, such as complaints by whistle-blowers, and the right to issue subpoenas demanding information relevant to governing.

The Trump administration, however, has evidently decided that none of that matters. So what if Democrats demand information they’re legally entitled to? So what if they issue subpoenas? After all, law enforcement has to be carried out by the Justice Department — and under William Barr, Justice has effectively become just another arm of the G.O.P.

This is the context in which you want to think about the latest round of revelations about Brett Kavanaugh.

First of all, we now know that the F.B.I., essentially at Republican direction, severely limited its investigation into Kavanaugh’s past. So Kavanaugh was appointed to a powerful, lifetime position without a true vetting.

Second, both Kavanaugh’s background and the circumstances of his appointment suggest that Mitch McConnell went to unprecedented lengths to create a Republican bloc on the Supreme Court that will thwart anything and everything Democrats try to accomplish, even if they do manage to take both Congress and the White House. In particular, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, it seems extremely likely that this court will block any meaningful action on climate change.

What can Democrats do about this situation? They need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say. So winning isn’t enough; they also have to be prepared for that confrontation.

And surely the first step is recognizing the problem exists. Which brings me to the Democratic presidential primary race.

The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination differ considerably in both their personalities and their policy proposals, but these pale beside their differences from Donald Trump and his party. All of them are decent human beings; all would, if given the chance, move America in a notably more progressive direction.

The real chasm between the candidates is, instead, in the extent to which they get it — that is, the extent to which they understand what they’re facing in the modern G.O.P.

The big problem with Joe Biden, still the front-runner, is that he obviously doesn’t get it. He’s made it clear on many occasions that he considers Trump an aberration and believes that he could have productive, amicable relations with Republicans once Trump is gone.

Which raises the question: Even if Biden can win, is he too oblivious to govern effectively?

If the Supreme Court Won’t Prevent Gerrymandering, Who Will?

A progressive take on states’ rights can come to the rescue.

Progressives have long looked to federal courts to guard the rights of racial minorities and dissenters. But that protection is weakening. Faced with the enormous injustice of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court last month permitted politicians drawing election district maps to discriminate by party and even potentially mask their racial “packing” and “cracking” as mere partisanship. To fill this growing gap, reformers should take an unexpected route: states’ rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote an opinion that allowed two gerrymanders, one committed by Republicans in North Carolina and one by Democrats in Maryland, to stand. His reason? He could not find a standard to judge when an offense had occurred. He rejected a considerable body of empirical research, including suggestions by my colleagues and me in an amicus brief.

Federalism, in which regional governments retain considerable power, has been invoked in the past to take away representational rights. But a local approach, properly applied, can also restore them. In a stinging dissent, Justice Elena Kagan pointed out that where the Supreme Court had failed to define and regulate partisan gerrymandering, four lower federal courts had succeeded.

State courts can do so, too — without federal approval. The elections clause of the Constitution gives states broad authority over redistricting as long as the actions do not run afoul of federal law. Chief Justice Roberts conceded that states can act on their own by “actively addressing the issue through state constitutional amendments and legislation.” Now that Republicans and their designates control the Supreme Court, the Senate and the presidency, reformers should embrace what Heather K. Gerken, the dean of Yale Law School, callsprogressive federalism.”

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which I founded, has investigated federalist approaches to redistricting reform. We found 27 instances in which a district map was overturned on the basis of state law. Recently, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned an unfair congressional map, citing the state Constitution’s free and equal elections clause, a phrase that is also found in 27 other state Constitutions.

And 47 Constitutions prohibit government discrimination based on political viewpoint, a principle also found in the First Amendment, which Justice Kagan has argued should protect partisan voters. Drawing a district’s boundaries to dilute a voter’s influence violates the principle of equal protection under the law as found in the 14th Amendment — and in 24 state Constitutions.

The use of federalism to protect voter rights will be tested in a trial this month in North Carolina, where General Assembly districts are being challenged as a partisan gerrymander. Since North Carolina law does not require the governor’s approval for maps, state court may be voters’ best and last chance at fair districts there.

Proving the case should be straightforward. Computer simulations can quickly explore thousands of alternatives to determine whether a map is an extreme partisan outlier. For example, in the Supreme Court case, which concerned a congressional map, Jonathan Mattingly, an expert witness, demonstrated that one congressional districting plan was more extreme than more than 99 percent of over 24,000 possible alternatives that honor city and county boundaries. Simpler mathematical formulas, which detect inequities of opportunity and outcome, can also help diagnose astate legislative map as extreme.

These technologies will soon be within reach of nearly everyone. Thomas Hofeller, a redistricting expert who died recently, drew North Carolina’s gerrymander. He was a Picasso of partisan maps. But thanks to data-sharing projects like OpenPrecincts and the Public Mapping Project, as well as free software like Dave’s Redistricting and PlanScore, citizens in every state will be able to draw their own maps — and expose partisan malfeasance the moment it emerges.

Federalism can also be imposed by voters directly. In 2018, redistricting reform initiatives passed in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah. These reforms earned 8 to 19 percentage points more support than the Democratic vote share in statewide races, showing that reform has bipartisan support.

The Colorado and Michigan initiatives establish independent redistricting commissions, in which passing a plan requires votes from independents or members of both parties. The political scientist Alex Keena and collaborators have shown that independently drawn maps are more balanced than maps drawn by either party alone. These commissions can also ensure representation for racial minorities and other communities. Citizens can change the law in the 24 states that allow voter-initiated ballot measures, and local reformers are now working to qualify such a measure for the ballot in Arkansas.

The spoils from gerrymandering are enormous. After a wave election in 2010 favoring Republicans, Republican-drawn gerrymanders in 10 states tilted the balance of power in Congress by nearly 20 seats, a modern high, and took hundreds of legislative seats out of contention.

With increased local power in the redistricting cycle of 2021, Democrats may be tempted to play tit-for-tat, imposing their own gerrymanders. But a proposed constitutional amendment that would have insulated Democrats from voters failed in New Jersey, in part because of popular anger. Rather than reducing electoral competition further, Democrats should seek representational balance by taking the high road of reform. They would be in step with over 70 percent of Americans who agree that gerrymandering should be curbed.

In states without the initiative process, legislators themselves will occasionally agree to give up power. The New Hampshire legislature has sent a reform bill to Gov. Chris Sununu. The Virginia legislature is considering a constitutional amendment for the 2020 ballot, though perhaps not entirely out of altruism: The current Republican majority may lose seats and fall victim to a future Democratic gerrymander.

A final route to reform uses the governor’s veto to check legislatures. Maryland has a Republican governor, counterbalancing the Democratic legislature. Wisconsin, site of one of the most extreme Republican gerrymanders in the nation, now has a Democratic governor. Depending on three competitive governors’ races this November, bipartisan control may spread to Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Putting all federalist routes together — courts, voter initiatives, laws and elections — I estimate that reform is actually possible in the vast majority of states, even without the Supreme Court’s help.

In biological systems, my other area of expertise, self-correction prevents living systems from going off-kilter. If we don’t sweat, we overheat. When cells disregard the boundaries of the organ where they belong, the result is cancer. So too in democracy: Without a mechanism to ensure fair districts, a political party can ensconce itself in power indefinitely. By introducing self-correction mechanisms, we can reverse the erosion of faith in democracy that comes from gerrymandering.