“The short answer is yes.” That quote is from Attorney General Jeff Landry, on video, when he appeared with Gov. John Bel Edwards, supporting the governor’s initial shutdown orders to protect Louisiana’s people from the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, maybe, the answer is no? We think that answer is still yes, that the state has the power to reach drastically into economic and social matters when a public health emergency exists, even if circumstances and the governor's orders have changed in details.
And the answer to that factual question, does an emergency exist, is still yes.
Landry, a frequent opponent of Edwards on state policies, issued a lengthy opinion that the latest version of Edwards’ emergency orders is “likely unconstitutional and unenforceable.” An attorney general’s opinion does not have the force of law but it may provoke critics of the Edwards policies to force a court case over the matter.
We would welcome a fair hearing on legal issues raised by the opinion, because no government action is above the law. But the fundamental issue is emergency actions, and despite the changes forced in the state’s approach by rising or falling rates of infection, we see this as a legitimate emergency.
Courts across the nation, just as the public in general, are likely to support emergency executive actions in these crises.
But there is an important political dimension to this discussion that rises above the personalities involved.
The opinion is advisory and was requested by group of eight legislators who include the governor’s most strident critics. They got the AG opinion they obviously wanted, but their position is we think a distinct minority in the legislative bodies in which they serve, and among the public at large.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that what we did is not just warranted by the circumstances we face with COVID-19, it's required. And it’s clearly within the legal authority that I have," Edwards said on his monthly radio show.
Edwards is a veteran lawyer and Republican Landry has practiced little in courts, but the latter has won a few when taking on the Democratic governor over policy.
But the larger political question is raised by the opinion and the persistent — if largely unsuccessful — agitation by the legislators sniping at Edwards.
That is the question that we’re sure the governor has himself pondered: How long?
Acting drastically in the interests of public health has provoked some backlash from people whose liberties have been circumscribed, and livelihoods demolished, by these orders. Even when, as the governor said Wednesday, Louisiana’s actions are similar to those ordered in other states and praised by responsible officials in the Trump administration.
Nevertheless, the backlash is real. So far, we think that not only is the governor on solid legal ground, but the public is the key enforcement arm on masks and other measures. Still, as months go by in a critical situation, it’s not just political opportunists on the far right in the Legislature who are restless.