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As Gov. John Bel Edwards watches, left, Attorney General Jeff Landry, right, talks about medicines being donated by drug companies to help the fight against coronavirus, during a press conference at the GOHSEP April 6.

A Baton Rouge judge on Thursday ruled a law used by House Republican lawmakers to order the governor to revoke his coronavirus restrictions is unconstitutional, dealing a blow to conservatives who have sought for months to loosen the rules. 

Nineteenth Judicial District Judge William Morvant sided with Gov. John Bel Edwards in a Zoom hearing, effectively rejecting the latest tactic used by Republican House members to revoke the coronavirus restrictions. 

Sixty-five of 68 House Republicans last month used an obscure 2003 law passed during the SARS pandemic to send a petition to Gov. John Bel Edwards directing him to cancel his virus restrictions. Morvant ruled the law in question violates the state Constitution because it doesn't involve both chambers of the Legislature, instead allowing the House or Senate to act on their own. 

The decision keeps intact Edwards’ coronavirus rules -- including a statewide mask mandate, social distancing requirements and gathering limits -- as the country experiences the most severe surge in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. Louisiana has largely avoided the latest surge, but health officials say the state is seeing early signs of an increase.

Republican leaders in the Legislature have long hesitated to send such a petition to the governor because they anticipated it would be declared unconstitutional by the courts.

But on the last day of a special session aimed partly at undermining Edwards’ coronavirus rules, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, rallied Republican support for the petition as a last-ditch effort. That came as the governor was set to veto a bill narrowly passed by the Legislature to allow lawmakers to strip out parts of his coronavirus orders. The petition would have revoked all restrictions for seven days, in an effort to force Edwards to negotiate with Republican lawmakers on loosening parts of his restrictions, like limits on attendance at high school football games. 

Morvant also rejected a motion by Attorney General Jeff Landry, who represented Schexnayder in the case, to force Edwards to comply with the petition and revoke his order.

“The Legislature gave the governor the authority to make these proclamations and issue them and they would have the force and effect of law,” Morvant said. “The existence of any legislative power is not on the Senate or House acting alone, but by the concurrent action of both houses.”

Louisiana's coronavirus rules expire Friday, but John Bel Edwards now has path to issue more

The issue is likely to ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court, after Landry vowed to appeal.

Morvant made the ruling in a Zoom hearing that was frequently upended by stray comments, technical problems and a legion of onlookers recruited to the hearing by Republican officials including Landry. The Zoom hearing was capped at 300 participants, and at one point during the proceedings, after the judge lamented the number of participants causing interruptions, Landry tweeted: “I didn’t know the public had no right to view it’s Courts! (sic) Seems a bit problematic in a Democratic institution.”

The decision was the latest win in court for Edwards, a Democrat who has kept a host of restrictions in place since March to limit the spread of the coronavirus, largely in line with recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force. His restrictions have survived several other challenges in state and federal courts.

Gov. Edwards in a statement called the ruling a "victory for public health." He also said the country is seeing a "frightening surge" in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and he urged people to keep following social distancing, mask and other protocols.

“What today’s hearing means for the people and businesses of Louisiana is that our state remains in Phase 3, including with a statewide mask mandate in effect, based on my most recent proclamation," Edwards said. "This represents our best chance at slowing the spread of COVID in Louisiana and has and will save lives. I will continue to work with public health experts, scientists and doctors on strategies and mitigation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana."

Landry, a Republican who is frequently at odds with Edwards, had described the hearing as about “upholding the very fabric of our Louisiana Constitution” and keeping in place checks on the governor. 

But Morvant said the governor’s emergency powers, granted to him by the Legislature, allow him to make decisions that have the force of law. To repeal, enact, or alter a state law, the entire Legislature -- including the House and the Senate -- must agree.

When Schexnayder delivered the petition to the governor in late October, it did include a majority of House members -- only three Republicans refused to sign it -- but not any members of the Senate. Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has said there is little appetite in the upper chamber to do a similar petition ordering the governor to revoke all his virus rules.

Landry said in a statement the court "effectively ruled the governor may make law without any legislative oversight -- this turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards." 

"It is problematic when a judge rewrites the law from the bench," Landry said. "That seems to be occurring more and more and adds to the current turmoil we find our country in. This case and its outcome affects all Louisiana citizens, their livelihoods and their safety." 

On Landry’s request to force the governor to comply with the petition, Morvant said even if he had agreed, it would not have had any effect because Edwards already issued a new set of coronavirus restrictions not targeted in the pleading. Morvant also hinted the petition itself may be moot at this point because the order it targeted has already expired and been replaced by a new one.

Landry and Edwards, political enemies who have tangled in court and elsewhere since both were elected to their respective posts in 2015, found common ground early on in the pandemic. Landry, whose name is often mentioned as a potential candidate for governor, came to a news conference with Edwards in March, as the state was entering a stay-at-home order, to reaffirm the constitutionality of the move. 

But the bad blood soon returned, as Republican officials in Louisiana became increasingly upset with Edwards' restrictions, and the pace at which he loosened them. Louisiana has long seen some of the highest rates of coronavirus infections per capita in the U.S., before being overtaken recently by several Midwestern states. Currently, the state is in Phase 3 -- involving reduced capacity at restaurants, allowing certain bars to reopen and high school football stadiums to welcome 50% of fans -- until Dec. 4th. 

Republican lawmakers called themselves into a special legislative session in late September -- their second special session of the year -- in large part to undercut Edwards' emergency powers. But the state Senate, led by Republican President Page Cortez, was unwilling to go as far as conservatives in the House wanted, though the two chambers ultimately agreed to send the governor a bill that was sure to be vetoed.

The petition law requires either chamber to make the decision "in consultation" with the public health authority. To satisfy that requirement, Republican lawmakers met with Edwards' administration in the governor's press room in September, according to a recording of the meeting submitted into the court record. 

At that meeting, lawmakers grilled the health officials about the veracity of the state's coronavirus statistics, and why certain restrictions were in place. Rep. Larry Bagley, the chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee, told the governor's team his elderly mother will likely "never go out of the house without a mask on again." 

"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 ... that's my choice," Bagley said at 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.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com