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Baton Rouge Judge Blocks Petition To End Governor's Coronavirus Restrictions

Paul Braun
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Nov. 5, 2020.

A Baton Rouge judge sided with Gov. John Bel Edwards Thursday, blocking a petition filed by Republican state lawmakers attempting to end the current public health emergency and lift the governor’s coronavirus restrictions. The judge also ruled that the petition process used by GOP House members was unconstitutional.

The ruling strikes another blow to Republican state lawmakers and elected officials who have sought to strip Edwards’ statewide mask mandate, business restrictions and other coronavirus rules through a variety of legislative and judicial challenges.

Last month, 65 Republican House members signed the petition, utilizing a process outlined in an obscure state law passed in 2003 at the height of global concern over SARS.

It requires signatures from only a simple majority of either chamber of the state legislature to repeal proclamations, which have the full force and effect of law.

Judge William Morvant of the 19th Judicial District Court said that doesn’t jibe with the state constitution and other state laws governing executive powers and emergency declarations.

“The existence of any legislative power is not on either the Senate or the House acting alone, but by the concurrent action of both houses and not simply the solitary action of one,” Morvant said while issuing his ruling. “I have lost count of how many times I have heard the term ‘the legislature’ used when it should truly be the ‘House of Representatives.’”

Many Republican state lawmakers expressed the same concerns during the special legislative session that concluded last month. The GOP filed more than two dozen measures aimed at firming up their constitutional authority to reign in the governor’s power, but Edwards vowed to veto the only measure they passed. The 65 Republican representatives signed the petition to avoid going home empty-handed.

The petition that Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder hand-delivered to Edwards on Oct. 23 demanded that the governor issue a proclamation rescinding his emergency declaration and all of its accompanying coronavirus restrictions. Edwards refused to do so, and a legal battle ensued.

Aside from the question of constitutionality, Edwards’ attorneys argued that the petition is moot, because it applied to a gubernatorial proclamation that expired on its own last week.

Edwards subsequently extended the public health emergency and issued a new set of coronavirus restrictions that will remain in effect through Dec. 4, barring any judicial intervention.

They also argued that even if the law was constitutional, the petitioners failed to consult the state Department of Health as is statutorily required.

Morvant indicated that he agreed with those positions, but did not hear extensive arguments on those topics, acknowledging that his courtroom was the first stop on a path that will ultimately lead to the state Supreme Court.

“I’ve never kidded myself to think that whatever decision I make here will be the final decision,” Morvant said. “I know the ultimate decision is going to be made by the state Supreme Court and I would like to get y’all there as quickly as possible.”

Attorney General Jeff Landry, the lawyer for the House of Representatives in this case, said in a press release that Thursday’s ruling jeopardized the state’s system of checks and balances.

“The Court effectively ruled that the Governor may make law without any legislative oversight - turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards,” Landry said in a press release, adding that it is “problematic when a judge rewrites the law from the bench.

Landry, a Republican,said he will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Edwards praised the ruling in a press release Thursday afternoon.

“Today is a victory for public health in the state of Louisiana and for all of those people, from our health care heroes, including our doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to our scientists and researchers, who are fighting every day to slow the spread of COVID and save lives here,” Edwards said. “I have long said the law some members of the House were attempting to use is unconstitutional and I am pleased the judge agreed.”

The decision will keep Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions in place as the nation grapples with the biggest surge of coronavirus cases since the outbreak began.

Louisiana has avoided that surge so far, but earlier this week the White House Coronavirus Task Force said the state is experiencing the early signs of an increase in cases and recommended the tighten restrictions in certain parishes.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.