Louisiana’s Democratic governor and Republican attorney general are set to face off in a high-stakes court battle Thursday to decide whether the state’s coronavirus restrictions – including a statewide mask mandate and social distancing requirements at bars and restaurants – should be revoked entirely for a week.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has so far refused to cancel his restrictions, despite House Republican lawmakers sending him a petition last month ordering him to do so. Instead, he’s asking 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant, of Baton Rouge, to declare the petition null and void.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is a frequent opponent of the governor, is defending House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and the Republican lawmakers, and is asking the same judge to force Edwards to comply with the petition. That would mean revoking the social distancing requirements, limits on large gatherings and mask mandate for seven days, a time frame aimed at forcing the governor's hand on making changes sought by lawmakers.
The hearing, slated for Thursday morning via Zoom, also comes as the U.S. experiences a new surge in COVID-19 that has caused cases to soar to levels not seen since the pandemic began. The White House Coronavirus Task Force warned Louisiana leaders this week that the virus is spreading rapidly across the U.S., including in the Sun Belt, where restrictions have been lifted in recent weeks. Louisiana health leaders have said the state is starting to see early signs of a similar wave.
Edwards, in an interview following a Veterans Day ceremony in Old South Baton Rouge Wednesday, pointed to Texas, where cases, hospitalizations and deaths have surged, and where officials are wheeling in trailers to serve as morgues in El Paso to accommodate a dramatic increase in deaths.
“While I pray it doesn't happen here in Louisiana, we're not immune from that,” Edwards said, noting Louisiana already experienced spikes that overwhelmed hospitals. “It's inexplicable, and it's unconscionable that people would both insist on the one hand that we open up our economy to the maximum degree that we can and yet they don't want to wear a mask. It just doesn't work that way.”
“You can’t get through it just because a few people in the Legislature say they’re tired of it.”
Landry has in recent days blasted the governor’s restrictions, and argued he is violating the law by refusing to cancel his rules, which the petition signed by 65 of 68 House Republicans ordered.
Speaking before a group of Livingston Parish residents fed up with the rules recently, Landry praised South Dakota, which he had just visited, because leaders there didn’t “lock down” residents. Leaders in the Dakotas have refused to implement many of the restrictions put in place by Edwards, and have also seen the nation’s worst rate of deaths over the past month.
In response to questions about the virus and the court case, Landry’s office pointed to a statement Landry issued arguing the governor doesn’t have “police powers” to enforce restrictions unless the Legislature gives them to him, and pushing back against the governor’s claims the petition is unconstitutional.
"Thursday’s hearing is not about undermining the validity of public health precautions; rather, it is about upholding the very fabric of our Louisiana Constitution," Landry said in the statement. "Statute clearly outlines that the governor cannot ignore or reject the checks and balances that underpin our government. If we allow this to happen once, when will it stop?"
The governor has already successfully defended his restrictions from at least three lawsuits, including one state and two federal district courts. Jimmy Faircloth, the former top attorney to Gov. Bobby Jindal who filed the two federal complaints on behalf of bar owners, appealed the rulings and said he is awaiting a decision.
Judge Morvant last week declined a request by Landry's office to block the governor from extending his coroanvirus restrictions until he complies with the petition, clearing the way for the governor to extend the Phase 3 rules for another four weeks.
Lawyers for both sides of the case between Edwards and House Republicans have filed hundreds of documents in recent days. Landry is asking the judge to dismiss the case on a host of procedural grounds, including that neither the Legislature nor the House can be sued.
Edwards’ administration argues the law allowing House Republicans to issue the petition – an obscure statute passed in 2003 amid the SARS pandemic – is unconstitutional because it involves only one of two chambers of the Legislature. Edwards said Thursday the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government, “but one body of the Legislature is not.”
The governor’s attorneys also contend the Republicans didn’t issue the petition “in consultation” with public health officials, because the Louisiana Department of Health told them it was a bad idea, and that they violated open meetings laws by crafting and signing the petition in private. Landry's office has pushed back against those points.
Republican lawmakers in September held a closed-door meeting with Edwards’ administration, including health leaders, seeking to meet the requirement they consult with the health authority. At the outset of that meeting, Edwards’ top attorney, Matthew Block, suggested he disagreed the meeting was really about consulting with the health officials, and instead was a “check the box thing,” according to a recording of the meeting entered into the court record.
In the governor’s press room on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, lawmakers grilled the health officials about whether the cases, deaths and other data reported by the state was legitimate, and why they were restricting the number of people at high school football games.
Rep. Larry Bagley, a Stonewall Republican who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, told Edwards’ team that his 90-year-old mother “probably will never go out of the house without a mask again” because she’s scared of the virus.
“But, again, if I want to go out and shake hands, or if I want to go out to a bar and drink, or if I want to go to a football game and sit next to Tony (Bacala) ... that’s my choice,” Bagley said in the meeting.
“We go home and go to the coffee shop and we have neighbors who ask, ‘Why are you doing this? I don’t know anyone who’s got COVID,’” he added.
Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican, told the Edwards administration in the same meeting that “in Bossier Parish, we don’t wear masks very often.”
“People can make their own decisions for their own health care needs,” Horton said. “Very rarely do people wear it correctly.”
Horton said in an interview Thursday she chooses not to wear a mask because her brother-in-law, a physician, told her most people don’t wear them correctly or touch them too much, reducing their effectiveness. She said her constituents simply want the right to choose.
The federal Centers for Disease Control ad Prevention has recommended for months people wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus.
Bagley and Schexnayder did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Rep. Tony Bacala, the Prairieville Republican who orchestrated the meeting between GOP lawmakers and the governor, also wrote an email to House Republicans 10 days before the special session that began in late September, acknowledging it was possible the petition could get bogged down in court if the governor sued.
He also said Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, was “not opposed to the petition,” which at that point was drafted to lift restrictions for 14 days. Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, both have raised concerns about the petition's constitutionality.
At the end of the special session, after Republican lawmakers appeared unlikely to make any progress on their goal of gaining power over Edwards’ emergency powers, Schexnadyer rallied Republican support for the 7-day petition.