Posted May 15, 2020. To settle a pandemic-related financial crisis at UMass Dartmouth, law faculty are not receiving research compensation in summer 2020. I will be away from my desk, May 16 to August 15. Blog posts will be sparse, and I will not receive email. On the upside, summer 🌞! If you need to reach me, please send a message through the faculty assistants’ office (Ms. Cain and Ms. Rittenhouse). Stay thirsty.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Legal attacks on lockdown mount; R.I. Governor's time will run out, report warns

Persons entering Rhode Island remain subject to 14-day
quarantine in the present phase 1 of reopening. Photo by
Taber Andrew Bain CC BY 2.0.
A former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice and a libertarian think tank asserted this week that R.I. Governor Gina Raimondo is running out of rope in sustaining her emergency lockdown orders.

Earlier in the pandemic, we law types found ourselves with time on our hands to read up on, and sometimes write about, the legal landscape of emergency powers.  Report 98-505 from the Congressional Research Service (here from the Federation of American Scientists and updated March 23, 2020) and CDC public health emergency guidance (2009, updated 2017) suddenly became popular downloads.  The 50-state compilation of quarantine and isolation laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures was well visited.  Various guides to emergency powers have blossomed since.  Heritage published a "constitutional guide" as early as March.  The Brennan Center updated a 2018 report about three weeks ago.  At Lawfare, Benjamin Della Rocca, Samantha Fry, Masha Simonova, and Jacques Singer-Emery overviewed state authorities the week before last.

Wisconsin Supreme Court chamber (Daderot CC0 1.0)
This week brought news of the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision two days ago, striking down the Wisconsin governor's stay-home order.  Clarity around the scope of the ruling and guidance as to how it should be implemented was woefully lacking from the 4-3 fractured court, and public confidence in the decision was undermined by the participation of a lame duck conservative justice in forming the majority.  Against the backdrop of a state supreme court already badly tarnished by partisan politics, the decision has only aggravated America's White House-fueled ideological in-fighting over coronavirus public policy.

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo
Personally, I've been happy with the leadership of Governor Gina Raimondo in responding to the crisis in my home state, Rhode Island.  But to be fair, I work in Massachusetts, and my job has been relatively secure.  There have been peaceful protests against lockdown in Rhode Island, and there is no doubt that the economic closure is devastating the small-business-heavy economy in the nation's smallest state.

On Wednesday, Robert Flanders, Matthew Fabisch, and Richard MacAdams published a legal analysis of Governor Raimondo's emergency orders.  The report came from the free-market think tank, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.  The authors are all lawyers; Flanders is a former associate justice of the state supreme court and was once a Republican challenger to U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.  Flanders wrote a companion editorial for The Providence Journal.  (HT@ Gene Valicenti.)

The takeaway from the report in the news is that the Governor has overstepped her emergency authority and is ripe for a lawsuit.  That's an understandable but unfair oversimplification.  The report is a solid legal analysis that examines the scope of state executive authority from a range of angles, including the statutory framework and constitutional limitations such as takings.  The popular takeaway derives from just one thread of the analysis, if an important one: The Governor's emergency powers must be limited, and a key dimension of those limits is time.

Rhode Island State House (cmh pictures CC BY-NC 2.0)
The report does not purport to adjudicate the Governor's emergency response as wrong or right.  Rather, the authors opine, when the Governor's authority runs up against the reality that exigencies are, by definition, not perpetual, the General Assembly has a responsibility to step up and lead.  That might mean simply extending the Governor's authority to make the kind of spot decisions that will be required for subsequent phases of reopening.  Or the legislature may override executive-ordered closures and force the reopening of the economy.

Saliently, the legislature should take charge of public policy.  The most cumbersome branch of government in its populous operation, the legislature is to be excused in the throes of emergency.  But after enough time has passed, the most democratically responsive branch of government should be able to gather its wits, get on its feet, and make law.  Decisions such as whether K12 schools will reopen in the fall, for example, not just financial shortfalls, should be the subject of fact-gathering legislative hearings right now.

The inevitable logic of this ideal is subject to reproach on grounds that many of our state legislatures in the United States, Congress besides, have become dysfunctionally non-responsive to increasingly severe social and economic problems. This paralysis has many and complicated causes, including corporate capture and unbridled gerrymandering.

In the functionalist reality of our government of separated powers, if one branch abdicates its mantle, the others will fill the vacuum.  Thus, in the absence of legislative leadership, a governor may be expected to carry on with policy-making, and a state supreme court, especially a politicized one, may be expected to push back.  It's in this sense that the pandemic crisis is exposing yet another grave institutional weakness in the infrastructure of American government.

If a legislature remains paralyzed long enough, the people will become antsy.  Among the ultimate remedies for legislators who would shirk their duties, some are more palatable than others (video: Liberate Minnesota protest, April 17, by Unicorn Riot CC BY-NC 3.0).  Once upon a time in Rhode Island, residents took up arms to compel the legislature to expand enfranchisement through a constitutional convention.

Alas, one problem at a time.

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