‘Tyrannical’ Wisconsin court ruling puts lives in danger amid pandemic
Protesters gather for a rally against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers's extended stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., April 24, 2020. The conservative-dominated state Supreme Court has declared the order unconstitutional, throwing Wisconsin's coronavirus response into chaos. | Amber Arnold / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

In a ruthless display of power, the right-wing-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court threw the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic into “chaos,” putting the lives of millions of residents in danger. The ruling, termed “tyrannical” by one dissenting justice, struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s administration’s ability to issue statewide emergency safer-at-home orders during the pandemic, without interference by the GOP-dominated state legislature.

“Republicans own that chaos,” declared Evers afterward. Premature lifting of safer-at-home orders in other states have resulted in new spikes of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

The ruling struck down a state law dating to 1887 and updated during the HIV-AIDS crisis in 1981 by the legislature. The law allowed the Department of Health Services to issue orders to contain contagious diseases and seek regulations through the legislative rule-making process.

That law states the DHS “may close schools and forbid public gatherings in schools, churches, and other places to control outbreaks and epidemics,” and gives it the power to “authorize and implement all emergency measures necessary to control communicable diseases.”

The Supreme Court ruling came despite progress made by the state in containing the pandemic. “We had reached almost all our gating criteria,” wrote Evers in a tweet. “We had opened up small businesses across the state, putting folks back to work, and that was because of the good work of Wisconsinites.”

The Court voted 4-3 in favor of GOP legislative leaders who brought the suit. The ruling is the latest in a string of cutthroat moves by the Wisconsin GOP and their wealthy backers to undemocratically usurp power and impose their political domination over the state.

The right-wing efforts, including state house demonstrations and lavish spending to elect the right-wing court majority, are funded by the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and Wisconsin billionaires like the Uihlein family, owners of Uline company, in addition to out-of-state billionaires like the Mercers, Charles Koch, and the Dorr Brothers.

Ironically, or perhaps cynically, the Court heard the case and issued its ruling remotely. Besides, the state court system overseen by the justices will remain on lockdown and has suspended jury trials and in-person court appearances.

In their ruling, the right-wing justices reduced the issue to a question of personal liberty. Justice Rebecca Bradley, in a particularly offensive justification, likened the safer-at-home order to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Supreme Court ruling was even too much for conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn, once an aide to former GOP Gov. Scott Walker. He called the ruling “tyrannical.” Chaos will now ensue, Hagedorn wrote in his dissent, because the ruling fails to “provide almost any guidance for what the relevant laws mean, and how our state governs through this crisis moving forward.”

“The rule of law, and therefore the true liberty of the people, is threatened no less by a tyrannical judiciary than by a tyrannical executive or legislature,” Hagedorn wrote.

Indeed, the Wisconsin GOP, like Trump, has offered no plan to end the pandemic, other than “reopening the economy.” In the meantime, “We’re going to have 72 counties doing their own thing. We were in a good place. We are no longer in a good place,” said Evers. Support for the safer-at-home order is at 69% but has waned as the pandemic continues.

Dane County, home to the state capital of Madison, immediately voted to maintain the current regulations. However, in those counties not following the safer-at-home order, bars, restaurants, and concert halls will now be permitted to reopen.

Evers has been in a fierce battle with the GOP-dominated state legislature since his election in 2018. They have repeatedly sought to strip his authority and sabotage his policies. In a lame-duck session after Evers’s election, the legislature voted to limit incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul’s “ability to control the state’s participation in lawsuits, target Evers’s power to run the state’s economic-development agency, and limit early voting hours.”

The measures were signed into law by Walker, who was himself defeated by Evers. After a lower court blocked the move, the GOP-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with the GOP legislature and reinstated the legislation.

According to the Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Winkler, the state has been a right-wing petri dish since the GOP legislative takeover in 2010. The GOP has exported their undemocratic practices to grab and maintain power to other states.

The Republican legislature has sought to permanently maintain power through extreme gerrymandering of the state electoral map. As the Brennan Center notes, “Republicans are a lock to win 60% of statehouse seats even if they win just 48% of the vote. In 2018, Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote and swept statewide offices. Still, Republicans saw the size of their state-house delegation reduced by only a single seat.”

The Supreme Court ruling is the second in a month putting the lives of millions of Wisconsinites in danger. In another naked Republican power grab, the Court overruled an emergency declaration by Evers to postpone the state’s primary election amid the pandemic and hold the vote by mail. They sought to ensure the re-election of right-wing Supreme Court justice Dan Kelly and institutionalize a right-wing majority.

The gambit failed when Dane County Circuit Judge Jill Karofsky defeated Kelly. However, Kelly, whose term is up in August, was part of the majority ruling in yesterday’s decision. Meanwhile, COVID-19 infected scores of people who went to the polls and voted.

What is happening in Wisconsin parallels the corruption occurring in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has steadily marched to the extreme right. It will continue to happen if Donald Trump is re-elected and has a chance to add to the extreme right majority.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.