To preserve COVID-19 emergency powers, Gov. Edwards goes to court

Governor sues House of Reps over GOP’s petition

By: - October 26, 2020 9:02 pm
Gov. John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

Gov. John Bel Edwards filed a motion in court Monday against the Louisiana House of Representatives in response to a petition signed by House Republicans who are determined to overturn the governor’s public health emergency declaration.The state’s COVID-19 Phase 3 restrictions remain “in full force and effect,” Edwards said, despite statements from Attorney General Jeff Landry that say otherwise.

On Friday, 65 of the 68 House GOP members signed a petition ordering the governor to terminate his public health proclamation and lift all the pandemic-related restrictions.

The petition cites a provision of the Health Emergencies Act that states that “The Legislature, by petition signed by a majority of the surviving members of either house, may terminate a state of disaster or emergency at any time…Thereupon, the governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster or emergency.”

Edwards has not signed a proclamation lifting the state of emergency. House Republican leaders said Friday that while the petition would get rid of statewide restrictions, local governments could still put in their own limits. Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, for example, already imposes much more stringent restrictions than those put in place by the governor. The petition wouldn’t affect her efforts, they said.

Friday night, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, one of the signatories of the petition, suggested that it’s not only wrong for Edwards to not end the public health emergency but that it was wrong for him to start it.

“The governor has been violating his legal authority since March,” Seabaugh said. “We don’t expect him to comply with this legal requirement, so we may have to go to court to enforce it, but we’re prepared to do so.”

It’s unclear if Republicans were planning to file a suit, but if they were, Edwards struck first. 

His lawsuit, specifically a motion for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, asks a 19th Judicial District court in East Baton Rouge Parish to declare the petition unconstitutional for several reasons. Among the governor’s arguments:

    • A single chamber cannot enact legislation without the majority vote of the Senate and without the governor’s approval;
    • The legislature can only use a petition to convene a special session and, even then, only with a majority vote from both chambers; and 
    • The petition contravenes Louisiana’s separation of powers principles.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Edwards called the petition reckless, dangerous and irresponsible, as well as unconstitutional. He also stressed that the COVID-19 restrictions remain in effect, despite what some legislators or the attorney general may have said. 

“I know everybody is tired of COVID,” he said. “We’re also tired of hurricanes. But neither the virus nor Mother Nature is going to take that into account.”

The petition comes at a time when Louisiana and many parts of the United States are beginning to see a third wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. More than 5,600 Louisiana residents and more than 244,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began.

“The petition suggests, instead, that the Legislature can live with those illnesses and deaths so long as it can declare the State back to ‘business as usual,’” the motion states.

The motion asks the court to declare the petition null and void and unenforceable. It also asks for a permanent injunction that prevents the legislators or their agents from interfering with or obstructing the governor’s emergency declarations and the state fire marshal’s authority.

“We’d be the only state in the nation without a public health emergency were these misguided legislators successful,” Edwards said.

Edwards has said that a termination of his emergency declaration would pose a serious risk to the federal funding that Louisiana receives from FEMA. 

Landry issued a statement over the weekend, which says in part: “The termination of emergency powers does not require any additional action other than the signed petition. Upon completion of the signed petition, the Governor is directed to issue a proclamation informing the public of the termination.”

Gov. Edwards motion

 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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