Local leaders applaud Supreme Court decision affirming Public Health powers

MADISON, Wis. — Local leaders are calling a state Supreme Court ruling saying public health officials do have the authority to create and enforce health orders a “win for every resident of our community.”

In a 4-3 decision Friday, the court ruled that Public Health Madison & Dane County not only had the authority to issue public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic but also had the authority to create civil penalties for not following the order.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi was one of the local officials celebrating the decision.

“This ruling ensures that our public health department will have the ability to keep our community safe — and that decision-making will remain science-based,” Parisi said in a statement released by his office Friday morning. “Our public health department’s careful, deliberate, and science-based actions during the pandemic are the major reason Dane County experienced one of the lowest per capita COVID death rates in the nation throughout the pandemic.”

In an interview with News 3 Now, he called the decision “critically important.”

“It allows public health to make science-based decisions when responding to anything that may arise,” Parisi said.

The county executive also took aim at some of the politically-charged language in the decision. Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote PHMDC Director Janel Heinrich acted like a “dictator.”

RELATED: State supreme court rules PHMDC has the power to enforce health orders

“I think that’s another example of the nasty hyperbole we are seeing… among politics and other places today,” Parisi said. “You know, this a Supreme Court justice.”

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway echoed those sentiments, also applauding the county and city for “following the science.”

“When Madison faced its first case of COVID-19 in February 2020, our public health systems leapt into action to learn everything they could about this novel virus and its threat to our community. Public Health Madison Dane County followed the emerging science, implemented best practices, and used their authority prudently and effectively,” the mayor said.

PHMDC’s public health orders, which limited gatherings and mandated the use of masks indoors at various points from 2020 to the end of February 2022 when their final order expired, have been a constant target of conservative law firms, who tried to argue health officials did not have the power to enforce such restrictions because they were not elected officials.

PHMDC director Janel Heinrich countered by citing state law, which says public health officials are allowed to “take all measures necessary to prevent, suppress and control communicable diseases.” Ultimately, the majority of Supreme Court justices agreed.

“We are pleased with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ability of local health officials to issue orders to protect the public in health emergencies,” PHMDC officials said in a statement Friday after the ruling was announced. “Public Health Madison & Dane County took decisive actions during this pandemic to control a communicable disease and protect the health and well-being of our community.”

The court needed to weigh the suggestion that public health leaders aren’t elected and therefore shouldn’t be able to do things like require masks, close schools and shut down public gatherings. That’s a stance Dane County Board Supervisor Jeff Weigand strongly agrees with.

“Instead of taking input from the public, instead of holding public hearings, instead of sharing data and reasoning behind their policies… my fear is that they are going to abuse that,” Weigand said.

He now hopes state statutes can be amended.

The state’s highest court said last December that they would hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of two Dane County residents and a business.