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Oregon Emergency COVID Orders Remain Valid For Now, Supreme Court Rules

John Rosman

Executive orders mandating business closures and enforcing social distancing throughout Oregon will remain in place while the Oregon Supreme Court takes up legal challenges to Gov. Kate Brown’s emergency authority.

Just hours after a Baker County judge invalidated more than 20 executive orders Brown has issued since early March, the Supreme Court on Monday evening granted an emergency stay on that ruling. In doing so, the court appeared to agree with the state of Oregon’s position that abruptly ending the emergency orders amid a pandemic could have serious health impacts, and should not be taken without a more-thorough consideration of the law.

“Following swift action by the Oregon Supreme Court, my emergency orders to protect the health and safety of Oregonians will remain in effect,” Brown said in a statement following the order, issued by Presiding Justice Thomas Balmer at 7:45 pm. “There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic. Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced ourselves for hospitals to be overfilled and ventilators in short supply.”

The whiplash ruling capped a day in which the tenets of Oregon’s months old social distancing restrictions were thrown into brief chaos, restoring the state — for now — to the phased in reopening plan that Brown began last week.

Shortly after 11 a.m., Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matt Shirtcliff ruled that Brown had overstepped her authority to declare an emergency under state statute. Under Shirtcliff’s analysis, the governor’s authority to limit restaurant activity and prevent large gatherings could last a maximum of 28 days, not the 120-day limit Brown has thus far placed on the state of emergency.

The ruling was immediately criticized by Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who feel that the governor’s power in an emergency extends beyond what the judge had ruled. Hours after the ruling, the Oregon Department of Justice filed an emergency motion with the Supreme Court asking justices to halt the lower court's order while they looked into the facts of the case.

Whether the court challenge to Brown’s emergency authority — brought by an group of churches in the state — is ultimately successful still remains to be seen. Balmer’s order directed attorneys on to file arguments with the court by Friday.

Ray Hacke, the attorney representing faith groups in the court challenge, said Monday night he was disappointed but not necessarily surprised. 

"The way I see it, the lower court found that the governor's actions have irreparably harmed the religious people of this state," Hacke said. "Basically she turned around and asked the Supreme Court: ‘They’ve already been irreparably harmed for the last three months, a couple more days won’t hurt.’"

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.