Attorney General Jeff Landry says governor’s face-mask mandate can’t be enforced

Edwards’ order ‘does not pass the constitutional test,’ Landry says

In this Jan. 22 file photo from Washington, D.C., Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (at the microphone) joins Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill (l) and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson at a press conference to discuss the impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol. They announced a letter written to the U.S. Senate in which 21 Republican state Attorneys General outline what they believe to be the legal flaws in the impeachment case against U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Two days after Gov. John Bel Edwards’ order that shuts down bars and mandates face coverings went into effect, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has often clashed with Edwards,  issued an official opinion that the governor’s order “does not pass the constitutional test” and “cannot be enforced with criminal or financial sanctions.”

In a written response to the attorney general’s opinion, Edwards said that his office is following guidance from the White House. Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, visited Baton Rouge Tuesday, praised Edwards’ leadership and urged residents to heed the governor’s public health orders.  Referring to his administration’s attempts to keep the state’s hospitals from being overwhelmed, Edwards said, “I will not let our state go back to a time when we risked being able to provide health care for our people.”

Landry addressed his opinion to seven Republicans in the Louisiana House and one in the Louisiana Senate who he says sought his opinion on Edwards’ order.  Opinions from the state attorney general’s office are advisory and do not carry the force of law, but the opinion calling the governor’s order unconstitutional would likely be quoted by any bar owner or business owner who files a lawsuit challenging the order.

Landry complains in the document that Edwards didn’t consult him when drafting Saturday’s order or any coronavirus order preceding it despite the fact that Landry is “the statutory legal advisor to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.” He also warns “all law enforcement (including the Fire Marshal and other individuals acting under the color of law) to exercise extreme caution when responding to calls related to violations of facemask orders.”

When asked for a response to Landry’s warning, Ashley Rodrigue, a spokesperson for the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office, said, “We are continuing to follow the governor’s directive until directed otherwise.”

Landry, who announced this week that he is in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, has insisted that his opposition to government officials mandating that the public wear face masks does not mean that he’s arguing against individuals wearing masks.  On April 9, in a move that may have shocked Louisianians aware of how Landry has consistently been the governor’s nemesis, Landry gifted Edwards a face mask illustrated with the state shield and pledged to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor in the fight against the pandemic.

In his written opinion, Landry says that his guidance “in no form should be taken to discredit or reduce the significance of any protections taken by an individual, including the wearing of a face mask for the purpose of preventing infection from COVID-19.” 

He later writes, “While face masks may be recommended, the mask mandate cannot be enforced with criminal or financial sanctions.”

Landry also says that threats to yank a business’ occupational licenses or shut off its utilities “would violate basic due process and could expose the government actor to civil liability.” That appears to be a response to Shreveport Mayor whose July 8 order mandating face masks threatens to shut off water service to non compliant businesses and to yank their occupational licenses. A Caddo Parish judge issued a temporary injunction that prevents the city from enforcing that rule.

Edwards announced his statewide order three days later.

I’ve been extremely patient over the last few weeks,” Edwards said then. “None of the steps I’m announcing today are steps that I wanted to take.” He didn’t issue his face-mask mandate until Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi had issued such mandates for their states.

Recalling the brief political ceasefire when the two stood stood together, Edwards said, “I wish Jeff Landry would listen to his own words from March 18 when he stood with me and said extraordinary measures were necessary to protect the people of our state during this COVID-19 crisis, encouraged Louisianans to follow my directives and said he was united with me in protecting the health and safety of the people of our state. I’m not sure what has changed since then, aside from the loss of 3,300 additional lives and more than 80,000 additional Louisianans becoming infected.”

Some of the state’s Republican lawmakers have been threatening to overrule Edwards and remove from him emergency powers during the ongoing pandemic, but there’s disagreement about how or if invalidating Edwards’ emergency order would impact the help and money Washington has been sending Louisiana during the health crisis.

Last week R. Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale, circulated a memo that he said came from Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder. That memo says that Louisiana would not be able to coordinate its coronavirus response with the federal government, would not have the authority to decontaminate facilities that might be harboring the virus, would not be able to procure COVID-19 testing supplies and personal protective equipment and would possibly lose future money the federal government appropriates to address the crisis if Republicans revoked Edwards’ emergency health declaration.

The Republican strategy going forward is unclear. Will Republicans use Landry’s opinion to try to muster the additional votes needed to take power away from Edwards? Will they encourage aggrieved business owners to file lawsuits against the governor?  The Illuminator reached out to Rep. Blake Miguez, chairman of the GOP caucus, but he did not return a message seeking comment.

Reporter JC Canicosa contributed to this report.