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Oregon Supreme Court Rules Against Churches Challenging COVID-19 Restrictions

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled against a group of churches and public officials from Eastern Oregon who challenged Gov. Kate Brown's executive orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In their ruling, the justices ordered a Baker County Circuit Court judge to vacate his preliminary injunction dismantling emergency actions Brown has taken to address the pandemic, an order that the Supreme Court had put on hold. Despite that ruling, the case remains open.

The churches conceded Brown has sweeping authority to limit public gathering and business functions but argued that this authority was limited to a total of 28 days — meaning restrictions in place since March would no longer be valid. 

The state's Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Brown has far more expansive powers to act in an emergency than plaintiffs had argued.

"The orders are not subject to the statutory time limit on which plaintiffs relied," the justices wrote. "Because the circuit court's conclusion about the statutory time limit was fundamental to its issuance of the preliminary injunction, it is necessary to vacate the preliminary injunction."

The opinion was cheered by Brown's office, which has begun opening up portions of the economy in recent weeks, but has now paused that process because of a spike in positive cases. 

"The Supreme Court’s decision today in this case affirms the Governor’s ability to act to protect the health and safety of all Oregonians during this crisis, and to continue to help prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon," a spokeswoman for Brown said in a statement.

On May 18, Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Shirtcliff granted the preliminary injunction, effectively tossing out more than 20 of Brown's orders dating back to mid-March.

For a few brief hours that day, the state was totally open for business. But before many realized the scope of Shirtcliff's injunction, the Supreme Court issued an emergency stay at the request of the Oregon Department of Justice. 

The basis of the dispute arose from two state statutes — one granting the governor broad powers to act during a declared emergency, and another, tailored to "public health emergencies," that contains strict time limits for a governor's authorities. 

Brown declared a state of emergency under the former statute, but the plaintiff churches and businesses successfully argued before Shirtcliff that she still must be bound by the time limits of the latter law. 

Justices strongly disagreed, finding that legislators had never intended to sap a governor's emergency powers when enacting the public health emergency provision in 2003. 

"To summarize: The legislature enacted the ... statutes in 2003 to give the Governor 'an additional tool' to respond to public health emergencies," the opinion reads. "Those statutes enable the Governor to exercise certain emergency powers as an alternative to declaring a 'full blown' state of emergency."

Kevin Mannix, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said Friday he was disappointed, but "not completely surprised."

"We realized this case would be affected by the surrounding environment concerning the coronavirus pandemic," he said. 

But Mannix said the ruling should give legislators pause about the scope of power Brown and future governors are able to wield in an emergency. He believes lawmakers should address the matter in a special session that's expected to be announced in coming days. 

"The governor will always declare a general emergency, and that 28-day time limit doesn't mean a thing," Mannix told reporters. "Is this really what you want? Unlimited, unmitigated power to declare an emergency?"

Though the justices have ruled the preliminary injunction is not valid, the Baker County case remains open as the parties determine their next steps.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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