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Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is also a veteran, removes his mask before speaking at a Veterans Day flag raising ceremony at Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge's Garfield House on Nov. 11.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions have elicited plenty of backlash from conservative lawmakers and residents who are sick of the rules, including some who have loudly proclaimed the orders are unconstitutional.

But the courts in Louisiana have weighed in decisively, on several occasions, that the restrictions are, indeed, constitutional.

How a high-stakes hearing over Louisiana coronavirus rules turned into a Zoom meeting fiasco

That’s not particularly surprising. Many other states have seen courts uphold virus restrictions that are similar to those implemented by Edwards. The White House Coronavirus Task Force is advising governors including Edwards on restrictions. Most recently, Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld Gov. Andy Beshear’s coronavirus rules, including a mask mandate.

Edward Richards, an LSU Law professor who recently wrote a historical review of state police powers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the judicial branch has long given deference to state leaders in responding to health crises. 

Richards said Louisiana governors have had broad powers to respond to public health emergencies for a long time, pointing to governors ordering quarantines and non-travel orders between parts of the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when smallpox and yellow fever ran rampant. 

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld restrictions on religious gatherings in California earlier this year, and recently refused a Nevada church’s request to temporarily block that state’s 50-person cap on religious gatherings. But the court’s makeup has since become more conservative with Justice Amy Coney Barrett replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Richards also noted that if large segments of the public refuse to comply with the orders, it's almost impossible to enforce them, especially if local officials aren't on board. That has held true in Louisiana, where the governor's administration has taken a largely hands-off approach to enforcement, aside from a handful of enforcement actions by liquor regulators against bars. 

While most state and federal courts have rejected challenges to public health orders, Richards wrote in his review that "an unprecedented number" of courts have sided with challengers during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though historically the Supreme Court has only found public health actions by state officials unconstitutional in two cases, where the court found the public health justifications were pretextual with significant racial/ethnic bias. 

"The question is not why they’re upholding them but why courts are rejecting them?' Richards said. 

But that's not the case in Louisiana, where Edwards has run the table so far in court cases challenging his restrictions. 

Here’s the score in some of the important court cases about Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions, in which Edwards is undefeated:

Gov. Edwards wins:

  • On Thursday, 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant sided with Gov. Edwards in perhaps the most high-profile case yet in Louisiana about the virus restrictions. Morvant ruled against Attorney General Jeff Landry’s motion to force Edwards to comply with a petition filed by House Republican lawmakers that ordered him to cancel all of Louisiana’s virus rules. Then, Morvant declared the law that allows for such a petition is unconstitutional. Landry vowed to appeal.
  • Tony Spell, the Central pastor who flouted Edwards’ virus rules by holding massive church services, lost a challenge to the restrictions this week in federal court. U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson in his ruling wrote, "the overwhelming consensus of courts throughout the United States reveals that reasonable restrictions on religious gatherings comply with Constitutional standards.” Spell, who landed in jail over accusations he nearly hit a protester with a school bus, vowed to appeal. Spell had previously lost in state court over similar issues. The judge declined to take up similar claims Spell made about the state Constitution. 
  • In August, a federal judge in New Orleans struck down a challenge brought by bar owners who claimed Edwards’ restrictions on their businesses were unconstitutional. U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Martin Feldman wrote that the question at issue was whether state officials or a federal court should decide what measures best protect residents during a pandemic. “The answer is state officials,” he wrote. Jimmy Faircloth, a former top lawyer for Gov. Bobby Jindal, represented the bars.
  • In an identical case, a federal judge in Lafayette in August ruled against a separate set of bars who challenged Edwards’ restrictions. Faircloth, the attorney representing the bars in both cases, said this week he appealed and is awaiting a decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • In the first court challenge heard over Edwards’ virus rules, 19th Judicial District Judge Janice Clark in early August upheld the governor’s bar closure, mask mandate and gathering limits in a challenge brought by four Jefferson Parish business owners who said they were suffering financially because of the rules. Clark said the state needed to “get a hold” of the virus and that Edwards can exercise emergency power to “limit the loss of life.”

Still pending:

  • The one court case held up most often by opponents of Gov. Edwards’ restrictions is a dispute over a Livingston Parish restaurant called Firehouse BBQ. The Louisiana Department of Health in July pulled the restaurant’s food permit after finding employees and customers weren’t complying with the state’s mask mandate. A lawsuit filed by the state has been bogged down in procedure for months, and the restaurant has faced zero consequences for flouting the restrictions.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com