Michigan Supreme Court decision creates legal clusterfuck that could torpedo Whitmer's battle against coronavirus

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House of Representatives chamber inside the Michigan State Capitol building. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • House of Representatives chamber inside the Michigan State Capitol building.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s authority to unilaterally impose COVID-19 restrictions threatens to undermine the state’s successful efforts to rein in the coronavirus.

State-level restrictions — such as mask mandates, social-distancing measures and forced business closures — must now be approved by the Republican-led Legislature. Across the country, Republicans have been reluctant to impose the kinds of severe restrictions that are credited with the steep decline in coronavirus cases in Michigan, even after President Donald Trump and members of his inner circle tested positive for COVID-19.



While Whitmer plans to meet with lawmakers to develop a plan to keep residents safe, some counties are devising their own strategies.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter’s administration on Saturday issued a local health order requiring people to wear masks when they leave their homes. Coulter said additional health orders may be issued to address public health concerns like bar and restaurant capacities.



“Health and science experts agree that facial coverings are critical to controlling the virus,” Coulter said in a statement. “We have come too far to backslide now especially as we want to get kids back to school and our economy moving again.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel tells Metro Times he does not plan to require masks because he says the Michigan Supreme Court decision makes clear he can’t unilaterally impose restrictions. While Hackel is encouraging people to wear masks, he says mask mandates and other restrictions must come from state or local legislative bodies.

“This is a representative democracy. Not one person should be dictating what’s going on here,” Hackel says. “It should be legislated, not dictated.”

Hackel noted that businesses still have a right to enforce mask policies.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is calling on Whitmer, lawmakers, and the counties to “devise a comprehensive, facts-based approach to control the spread of COVID-19 that keeps residents safe and recognizes the unique challenges different regions face.” But he did not indicate whether he plans to impose county-level restrictions.

“The Michigan Supreme Court may have struck down the state’s response to the pandemic, but it did not strike down COVID-19; it is still very much a threat in our communities until there is a vaccine,” Evans said. “It is time to set aside the political rancor and work collaboratively on a response that makes us as safe as possible.”

Whitmer called the ruling, which doesn’t go into effect until Oct. 23, “deeply disappointing” and said it risks derailing the state’s success in minimizing new coronavirus cases.

“The only way we will get through this is by pulling together as Americans and working as one nation to defeat this virus,” Whitmer said. “That means wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, and maintaining six feet of physical distancing. Michiganders have grit, and there is no challenge we can’t meet.”

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus has been popular. A poll last month found that nearly 61% of Michigan voters approved how she’s handled the virus, compared to 36% who disapproved.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Sunday that she will no longer enforce the governor’s emergency orders “through criminal prosecution.” But, she said, Whitmer's executive orders are "not binding on other law enforcement agencies or state departments with independent enforcement authority.”

“It’s her fervent hope that people continue to abide by the measures that Governor Whitmer put in place – like wearing face masks, adhering to social distancing requirements, and staying home when sick – since they’ve proven effective at saving lives," Nessel said in a statement. "If it weren’t for the Governor’s actions, countless more of our friends, family and neighbors would have been lost to COVID-19. We can respect both the court’s decision and the advice of medical experts by continuing with these important measures voluntarily.”

Michigan House Republicans blasted Whitmer on Twitter for “having a difficult time accepting the outcome of the court’s landmark decision.”

The Legislature “remains committed to working with the governor to chart our state’s path forward – based on science, data and reason,” Republicans tweeted.

The Michigan Democratic Party expressed disappointment with the ruling and accused the conservative-leaning court of “playing partisan politics with our lives.”

“Over the course of the last 6.5 months, Governor Whitmer, with guidance from public health specialists, has enacted a set of regulations intended to protect the lives and well-being of all Michiganders,” the party said in a statement Friday. “Because of her swift and decisive actions countless lives have been saved.”

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