MADISON — Local health officers can unilaterally issue orders to slow diseases, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision upholding contentious orders limiting indoor gatherings and mandating masks that Dane County officials handed down during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 4-3 decision affirms that state law grants local health officers the ability to do what they deem necessary to stop communicable diseases without oversight from governing bodies such as city councils and county boards.
Liberal-leaning Justice Jill Karofsky wrote for the majority that Wisconsin law clearly authorizes public health officers to issue such orders and has since the state was a territory. She added that if local elected officials don't like the orders they can remove the health officer, creating a strong safeguard for the people.
The ruling marks the culmination of a lawsuit two parents filed in Dane County in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They challenged orders from Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich issued barring indoor gatherings, closing schools and mandating masks in all indoor spaces open to the public. A Madison gym and a dance studio in Oregon, Wisconsin, later joined the lawsuit.
Heinrich cited a section of state law that allows local health officers to “take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases” and a county ordinance stating that disobeying her orders is illegal.
The parents argued that multiple sections of state law hold that local legislative bodies, not health officers, must adopt restrictions like the ones Heinrich implemented.
Heinrich's orders drew intense criticism. She told the Wisconsin State Journal that people called her and her staff evil Nazis in emails. Protesters even gathered outside her home.
Conservative-leaning Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote in dissent that Henrich has acted like a dictator, entitling a section of her opinion “Heinrich's Tyranny.”
"There are no more fitting words to describe the arrogation of power Heinrich wields," Bradley wrote.
Karofsky addressed Bradley's choice of words in the majority opinion, calling them a “poor substitute for legal argument.”
“While the direct and implied contentions that a local health official is a tyrant, an autocrat, a dictator, and a despot are fantastical, they do real damage to the public’s perception of this court’s work," Karofsky wrote. "We must aspire to be better models of respectful dialogue to preserve the public’s confidence on which this court’s legitimacy relies.”