(The Center Square) – The Louisiana Supreme Court has sent a dispute between Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican members of the state House of Representatives over the governor’s COVID-19 emergency powers back to the district court, saying the lower court should decide whether a statute that allows one chamber to lift a governor’s order was followed before asking justices to decide whether the law is constitutional.
Shortly before the Legislature’s fall special session ended, 65 of the 68 Republicans in the House signed a petition to suspend the governor’s COVID-19 emergency order for seven days, citing an obscure state law that has never been tested in court.
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Attorney General Jeff Landry asked Judge William Morvant with the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge to order Edwards to obey the petition and issue a proclamation rescinding his emergency order. The judge declined to do so, saying the petition addressed an order Edwards issued in October that had since expired and been replaced.
During oral arguments, Morvant indicated that he doubted the statute’s constitutionality, siding with Edwards’ attorneys, who argued the governor’s emergency orders carry the force of law and it takes both chambers to make law. Solicitor General Liz Murrill said the emergency powers statutes allow the Legislature to delegate some of its power to the governor and argued the petition process is the tool the Legislature gave itself to regain that authority.
Both sides agreed to drop their requests for an injunction to allow Morvant to rule on the constitutional question. The Supreme Court says the judge should not have done so.
The law requires a chamber to consult with the state public health authority. Edwards’ attorneys argued that House Republicans failed to engage in meaningful consultation with the state public health experts.
The Supreme Court majority says precedent dictates state courts should not rule on the constitutionality of a law unless it is essential to resolve the case. Morvant failed to rule on whether the House members followed the law, they say.
“For the reasons assigned, the judgment of the district court is vacated and set aside,” the Supreme Court decreed. “The case is remanded to the district court, which is instructed to rule upon all non-constitutional arguments, reaching the [constitutional] challenge only if such a challenge is essential to resolution of the case.”
Justice John Weimer dissented.
“As the third branch in the tri-partite system, this court is charged to act as the final arbiter of the constitution and laws of this state,” Weimer wrote. “Given the context and conditions under which this case arises, I believe this court has a responsibility to address the constitutional issue presented and resolve it: a task squarely within this court’s province and duty.”