Lawmakers want to stop fire marshal from enforcing COVID-19 restrictions 

It’s the latest attempt to strip the governor’s power

New Orleans Mask
Visitors walk past face mask signs along Decatur Street in the French Quarter on July 14, 2020 in New Orleans. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The House Commerce Committee advanced a resolution that suspends the state’s fire marshal authority to enforce COVID-19 restrictions on businesses –including bars and restaurants. It’s the latest attempt by the Republican-controlled Louisiana Legislature to take the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic away from Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

“When the governor decided in his proclamation to delegate that authority to the fire marshal, it’s not allowed per law, per our constitution,” Blake Miguez, chairman of the House Republican caucus, said. Miguez, who introduced the resolution, said his measure aims to “remove the enforcement powers of the fire marshal as they relate to COVID-19.”

Because the legislation was drafted as a resolution to temporarily suspend the fire marshal’s authority, it requires only a simple majority of both chambers to pass, and the governor cannot veto it.

Miguez also cited Attorney General Jeff Landry’s official opinion that the governor’s order “does not pass the constitutional test” and “cannot be enforced with criminal or financial sanctions.” Two federal courts in Louisiana — one in New Orleans and another in Lafayette — rejected those arguments from bar owners when they sued Edwards this summer. Those bar owners quoted Landry extensively in their attempt to get the two judges to invalidate Edwards’ order shutting down bars, U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans ruled that the Constitution didn’t prohibit Edwards’ orders and that Landry’s opinion “lacks the force of law and binds neither the Court nor the Governor.”

Democrats on the committee pointed out that Miguez’s argument — that the governor acted unconstitutionally — didn’t succeed in court. 

Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said only a court can declare the governor’s order unconstitutional, but so far none has. 

Miguez said the two cases have been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — one of the country’s most conservative courts — and he expects that appeal to lead to a ruling against the governor’s order. 

Miguez also said the government’s role should be to give guidance to businesses so they can operate safely, but “to have the fire marshal… start handing out criminal misdemeanors, I’m totally against that.” 

“Just the threat of ‘if you don’t do what we say based on whatever that restriction may be, we’re going to shut down your business’” hurts business owners in Louisiana, Miguez said.

The Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal said Monday that its office has written no citations and has taken no actions on COVID-19 violations. Those actions have been taken by other state agencies.