19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant today rejected an effort by Republican state House members to force an end to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and other coronavirus-related restrictions.
At issue is a petition signed by 65 GOP members of the House, ordering Edwards to, in effect, rescind a proclamation ordering the restrictions. The petition was issued under an obscure section of a 2003 state law, allowing a majority in either the House or the Senate to sign a petition forcing the governor to end a public health emergency declaration.
Morvant rejected a motion by House members and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry to force Edwards to comply. Among Morvant’s reasons for his ruling: The petition specifically addresses a proclamation Edwards made in October that has since expired and been replaced by a new order.
Morvant also said the Edwards proclamation has the force of law, and couldn’t be blocked by an action of one legislative body.
“In order for them to basically repeal something that has the force of the law, I do think that the House and the Senate would have to be in it,” Morvant said.
He stopped short of ruling that the law regarding the petition violates the Louisiana Constitution, but held out the possibility that he would rule on the constitutionality later Thursday.
Edwards renewed his latest round of restrictions—including the mask mandate and limits on public gatherings and bar and restaurant capacity—last week after Morvant refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the restrictions pending Thursday’s hearing.
Attorneys for Edwards argued in briefs that the law invoked by the Republican House members violates the state constitution’s requirement that a law be approved by both legislative bodies. They also argue that the petition was not signed in consultation with the state health department secretary and state health officer as the law requires.
In a court brief, attorneys in Landry’s office argued that the petition is constitutional because the law establishing it was passed by both the House and the Senate in 2003. The petition, they added, is not a bill requiring passage by each body, but “a trigger that either house of the legislature has the power to pull if the governor acts beyond the authority delegated to him under the Health Act.”
The dispute comes amid a surge of COVID-19 cases nationwide. Louisiana was an early hot spot as the pandemic spread in the spring and suffered a second surge over the summer. Edwards’ office on Wednesday released the weekly report it gets from the White House indicating that Louisiana cases are increasing—hitting 96 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people last week. That was a 31% increase but it is below the national average of 209 per 100,000 people.