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Gov. John Bel Edwards updates the status of the state in regard to Hurricane Delta recovery efforts and COVID-19 Thursday Oct. 22, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is taking the state House of Representatives to court to stave off a controversial effort by Republican state lawmakers to lift all of his virus restrictions – from the mask mandate to social distancing requirements at businesses – with the governor calling the move unconstitutional.

Sixty-five of 68 state House Republicans delivered Edwards a petition Friday under an obscure state law that allows either chamber of the Legislature to end a public health emergency.

While the law says the governor “shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of public health emergency,” which in this case would cancel Louisiana’s virus rules, Edwards said he won’t comply because he believes the law is unconstitutional.

And he is asking 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant, of Baton Rouge, to declare that law unconstitutional, which would render the petition to cancel the virus restrictions for 7 days null and void.

“That petition is reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, and I will also say it’s unconstitutional,” Edwards said in a Monday press briefing. “Many of the people who put their names on that petition know that the petition is a bad idea and that it is unconstitutional. And I know that because they told me.”

Edwards said the state's Phase 3 of restrictions remain in effect. 

The lawsuit argues that the law House Republicans are using, passed in 2003 during the SARS pandemic, is unconstitutional because one chamber is acting on behalf of the entire Legislature, which is composed of both the House and Senate. The Senate, which is also dominated by Republicans, has refused to bring a similar petition to end virus restrictions.

Edwards’ administration also says in the suit the lawmakers failed to follow the law to begin with, because they didn’t issue the decision “in consultation with the public health authority.” He said the Louisiana Department of Health, which oversees the virus response, doesn’t agree that the public health proclamation detailing a host of virus restrictions should be terminated.

House Republicans did meet with LDH to discuss the petition. But a letter from the agency to state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, says "we strongly discourage any action that would reverse or alter the Governor's executive orders and proclamations related to COVID-19 to date." 

Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez, have long worried the petition would be declared unconstitutional if passed and taken to court. While conservative lawmakers have circulated such petitions for months, Schexnayder refused to get on board until the last day of the recent legislative session, which ended Friday.

Schexnayder, speaking on talk radio Monday, said the governor “left us no choice” because he refused to negotiate with Republicans over the virus rules. Louisiana is currently in Phase 3, in which bars in certain parishes can reopen at 25% occupancy, other businesses like restaurants can operate at 75% and a statewide mask mandate is in effect.

Edwards also said Monday he will veto the key piece of legislation passed by Republicans in the special legislative session to give them the ability to overturn parts of the governor's executive orders. 

Schexnayder said the current rules are too tight on businesses and that while social distancing and masks lower the risk of the virus, “it’s not the governor’s mandates that keep us safe.”

“We met with the governor multiple times throughout the session and he refused to budge,” Schexnayder said. “The Legislature makes no apologies, none, for standing up for the people of Louisiana. “

Stephen Waguespack, head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which holds considerable sway over Republican lawmakers, said on the same radio show later that the petition was “the appropriate thing to do.” He said he hopes it will bring the governor to the table to negotiate the restrictions with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Landry said he believes the petition took effect when a majority of House members signed it Friday, regardless of what the governor does.

Rep. Blake Miguez, chair of the House Republican delegation, said he agrees with Landry that the petition is in effect, and he told business owners violating the rules to contact Landry's office if the Edwards administration tries to enforce them. 

"I know it's a hard pill for the governor to swallow, but he has to follow the law," Miguez said. 

The Edwards administration’s Fire Marshal and Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, which are tasked with enforcing the restrictions on businesses, said nothing has changed.

Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the Fire Marshal, said “our operations remain the same.”

Ernest Legier, commissioner of the ATC, said “the agency continues to advise permit holders that compliance with ATC laws, advisories, regulations, etc. is required to remain in good standing with the agency.”

The petition also doesn’t affect the ability of local governments to issue their own rules. For instance, a spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said “we anticipate no changes to Orleans’ regulations due to this petition.” Cantrell has issued comprehensive restrictions at the local level which in some cases are more restrictive than Edwards’ rules.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s office said it may have to alter language to keep the parish mask mandate in place if the petition is successful.

But asked whether Broome would institute capacity restrictions and other rules to match the governor’s order if the petition succeeded, spokesman Mark Armstrong said, “At this point we’re not going to get into hypotheticals but we do stand ready to protect the health of our citizens and our economy.”

Broome is up for re-election in 8 days.

A spokesperson for Lafayette Mayor Josh Guillory did not respond to questions Monday.

Cynthia Lee Sheng, president of Jefferson Parish, said Monday she would keep in place all of Edwards' restrictions, if she has the legal authority to do so. Lee Sheng added the mask mandate would remain effect in the parish; she instituted a local mask mandate before Edwards ordered one for the whole state. 

“I believe these restrictions are the reason we’re able to be at 75% capacity for most of our businesses for Phase 3," Lee Sheng said. " To say there’s no more health emergency … Is not where we are in this world.”

In Ascension Parish, Schexnayder's base in Gonzales is located, officials said they would continue to follow Edwards' orders until formally notified otherwise. It's not clear what the parish would do if the order went away. 

"Until the Governor rescinds his executive order, or until we are notified legally that the executive order is rescinded, we will continue following what has been in place,” said Martin McConnell, parish government spokesman.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com