State judge sides with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards on COVID restrictions
A state judge Thursday sided with Louisiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and his ability to keep COVID-19 restrictions like the statewide mask mandate in place despite a petition from House Republicans ordering him to overturn his proclamation.
Baton Rouge Judge William Morvant ruled that a law allowing a majority of members of either the House or the Senate to terminate any governor's authority is unconstitutional and should require the approval of the entire Legislature.
"We keep using the term Legislature," Morvant said. "This was not the will of the Legislature, but the will of the House of the Representatives that this take place.
"All (legislative) power is based on a bicameral Legislature ... by the actions both houses and not just one.
"In my opinion in order for them to repeal something that has the force of law I do think both the House and Senate would have to be in it."
"Today is a victory for public health in the state of Louisiana," Edwards said in a statement after the hearing.
Morvant's ruling was made after a raucous Zoom hearing in which an audience of 300 viewers sometimes chimed into Morvant's displeasure. "Snide comments from the peanut gallery are not going to be tolerated by this court," the judge said at one point.
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and his team representing Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales argued that since the law allowing a single chamber to issue the petition was passed by both chambers represents bicameral action and should stand.
But Morvant dismissed that argument, saying "it's up to the Legislature to correct their mistake."
Morvant said his ruling would have been different had the petition been approved by the House and the Senate.
"I would have granted that ... so fast it would have made the governor's head spin," Morvant said. "The House acting alone I think is unconstitutional."
Landry's top attorney Liz Murrill said the ruling could give the governor "unrestrained ... unchecked power," saying the House represents the legislative branch of government's ability to check that power.
But James Garner, one of the governor's attorneys, made the successful argument that both chambers are needed to make law.
"That's our cornerstone principle," he said.
The attorney general and other Republicans lobbied members of the public to join the Zoom hearing, which at times seemed to irritate the judge as some viewers were able to unmute their audio to make comments or noises.
When one of the attorneys asked, "What was that?" Morvant said: "I have no idea. I wasn't the one who invited the whole state to participate."
Landry responded on Twitter: "I didn’t know that the public had no right to view its Courts! Seems a bit problematic in a democratic institution."
In a statement after the hearing, Landry accused Morvant of rewriting the law.
"Our government is built on a system of checks and balances," Landry said. "The Legislature makes laws; the Governor enforces them. Today, the court effectively ruled the Governor may make law without any legislative oversight — this turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards."
The Zoom hearing was limited to 300 and was maxed out with viewers. At one point Garner, one of the governor's attorneys, was bumped from the hearing because it was over capacity.
House GOP delegation Chairman Blake Miguez of Erath responded to the limit on Twitter: "When the court website said open to the public, did they mean limited public access?"
Though Morvant's ruling keeps the governor's authority intact for now, he acknowledged the case will likely eventually be heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which he called "above his pay grade."
Following is a copy of the law being debated:
"§768. Termination of declaration of public health emergency
A. The state of public health emergency shall continue until the governor finds that the threat of danger has passed or the disaster or emergency has been dealt with to the extent that the emergency conditions no longer exist and terminates the state of public health or emergency by executive order or proclamation, but no state of public health emergency may continue for longer than thirty days unless renewed by the governor."
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.