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Baker County Circuit Court Judge Stands By Oregon Coronavirus Orders Injunction

The Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., on Sept. 26, 2019.
The Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., on Sept. 26, 2019.

The Baker County Circuit Court judge who vacated more than 20 of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's executive orders surrounding the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic told the state's Supreme Court he wouldn't back down from his decision.

"I have elected to stand by my original ruling," Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff wrote. "I will not be vacating the May 18, 2020 Order Granting Preliminary Injunctive Relief and Denying Motions To Dismiss or taking other action."

A group of churches and Eastern Oregon public officials have sued the state, arguing Brown's executive orders exceed her authority under state law.

Last week, Shirtcliff's injunction effectively tossed out Brown's executive orders that limited social gatherings and business activity, technically opening the state for a few hours. By Monday evening, however, the Oregon Supreme Court intervened, placing Shirtcliff's injunction on hold.

Over the weekend, the justices asked Shirtcliff to either further explain his ruling or to reverse it. Tuesday's brief note was his reply to the Supreme Court.

Now, the litigation continues before Oregon's highest court.

The Oregon Department of Justice, which is representing the governor's interests, will be allowed to argue its case in writing further before the Supreme Court.

The churches, too, will have the opportunity to argue their legal arguments as well in a brief due next week. They acknowledge the governor has sweeping powers under a public health emergency, but have argued those powers are limited to 28 days. 

Ray Hacke, the attorney representing the churches, said he was “absolutely thrilled” by Shirtcliff’s decision to double down.

“I figured he would stand by his decision,” Hacke said Tuesday. “I had complete faith that he would. I wasn’t expecting his order to be as short and sweet as it was, but really he didn’t need to say much more.” Hacke added that Shirtcliff’s preliminary injunction had enough justification for the action.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has said the law clearly allows for the governor's powers to issue executive orders during an extraordinary time. She added many of the orders have already been modified as most of the state’s counties are in the first phases of reopening.

“Completely undoing the measures she’s put into place could undermine what we’ve done so far and undermine sacrifices, everywhere, all Oregonians have made in order to get there,” Rosenblum said in an interview with OPB last week.

In a statement Tuesday, Rosenblum said her office would be filing an "extensive brief" later this week that advocates on upholding the executive orders. "Meanwhile the Governor's orders remain lawful and in effect," she said.

It's unclear if the Supreme Court justices will request oral arguments in the case before making a final decision.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.