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Wisconsin Supreme Court strikes down statewide mask mandate in 4-3 ruling

wisconsin supreme court
Posted at 9:05 AM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 18:37:41-04

MADISON — Wisconsin's conservative-leaning Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate Wednesday in a 4-3 ruling, a decision that removes one of the governor's major tools in controlling the response to the virus across the state.

The high court ruled that Gov. Evers overreached his authority by issuing several emergency orders requiring all residents wear masks in public spaces. Justices argued in the majority decision Wednesday that the governor needs approval from the state's legislature to do so. The Republican-led legislature has argued against statewide mask mandate.

The Supreme Court's rejection of the statewide mask mandate does not impact mask mandates issued by local governments. Mask requirements will now be left up to individual businesses such as restaurants, and more broadly local health departments. Waukesha County says they will not be requiring masks. In Milwaukee County, it's a mixed bag.

Brown Deer, Glendale, Milwaukee, Shorewood, Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay have their own mask mandates. Others like West Allis do not.

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Majority rules against the governor

Justices in the majority decision ruled the governor's emergency orders requiring masks are unlawful.

"After receiving briefing on these requests, we conclude that the state of emergency proclaimed in Executive Order #105 exceeded the Governor's powers and is therefore unlawful," the majority decision reads in part.

"Therefore, we declare that Executive Orders #82 and #90——both of which declare a public health emergency in response to COVID-19——were unlawful under Wis. Stat. § 323.10," according to the decision.

Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, as well as Justices Annette Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote the dissenting opinion, and was joined by Justices Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky.

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This image taken from video by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Madison, Wis. Evers issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases. (Wisconsin Department of Health Services via the AP)

The majority argued their decision has nothing to do with whether or not a mask mandate is a prudent medical decision.

"The question in this case is not whether the Governor acted wisely; it is whether he acted lawfully," it reads. "We conclude he did not."

Gov. Evers said in a statement Wednesday that science has led his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve worked to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe, and I’ve trusted the science and public health experts to guide our decision making," according to Evers.

"Our fight against COVID-19 isn’t over—while we work to get folks vaccinated as quickly as we can, we know wearing a mask saves lives, and we still need Wisconsinites to mask up so we can beat this virus and bounce back from this pandemic," Evers said.

People in Wisconsin line up to vote during coronavirus pandemic
Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state's presidential primary election, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Mask mandate and the 'Safer at Home' order

The governor has renewed the mask mandate numerous times since the pandemic hit the state over a year ago, arguing a statewide order is an essential part of keeping coronavirus cases down. Many conservatives have resisted the order, arguing an overreach of authority.

The state Supreme Court struck down Evers' 'Stay at Home' order last year, an indication that the high court was likely to rule similarly on the mask mandate.

The Supreme Court's decision comes a day after state health officials decided to make all Wisconsin residents 16 years or older eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting April 5.

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Tina Schubert

Decision amid potential surge in cases

Over 2.7 million vaccines have been administered in Wisconsin, and just over 3 million have been allocated to the state by the federal government. The state continues to lead the nation in distributing the vaccine to its residents.

However, the state's seven-day average number of coronavirus cases has increased in the last few days. The state Department of Health Services reported an average of 501 Tuesday, up from a low of 350 last week.

During a press briefing this week, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk did indicate Wisconsin is seeing signs of a surge in cases.

Also this week, the DHS announced seven more pharmacy chains will receive the vaccine as part of the Federal Retails Pharmacy Program.

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Coronavirus in Wisconsin

More data on Wisconsin's vaccination progress here.

Find a vaccination site here.

Check out county-by-county coronavirus case numbers here.

More information: COVID-19 on the Wisconsin DHS website

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