A pair of judicial rulings Thursday gave differing opinions about Gov. JB Pritzker’s ability to manage the spread of COVID-19.
In one sweeping decision, a downstate Illinois county judge ruled that a governor’s authority does not allow him to consistently renew an executive order every 30 days, the maximum amount of time that an executive order can be in place. Pritzker had used his executive authority to issue state-wide stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus.
Judge Michael McHaney’s decision effectively voids Pritzker’s executive orders issued since April 9th, which have mandated residents stay at home, limited crowd sizes, and determined which businesses were allowed to stay open during the pandemic.
“The Court declares that Defendant had no Illinois constitutional authority to restrict a citizen’s movement or activities and/or forcibly close business premises” via the earlier executive order, McHaney wrote.
Despite the ruling’s strong language, it remains unclear what immediate effect the Clay County ruling has statewide – if any.
“This decision is one circuit court case that is contradicted by multiple other Illinois circuit courts. Additionally, it is not a final judgment and has no injunction,” a spokeswoman for Pritzker wrote in a statement.
The ruling came late on Thursday afternoon before a holiday weekend, delaying any appeal until at least next week.
Pritzker’s stay-at-home order ended last week after the number of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in every region of the state consistently dropped. As the entire state is now in Phase 4 of the governor’s plan to reopen the economy, many COVID-related restrictions now come from guidance issued by state agencies.
A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said the state’s 50-person limit on gatherings is still in effect. Restaurants, bars, gyms, zoos and theaters are also limited in how many customers they can serve at one time, she said.
Further, local governments’ stay-at-home and social distancing requirements for residents and businesses – many of which mirror the state’s – would not be affected by this ruling. Under state law, cities can enact their own stricter policies, as Chicago has done and which remain in place.
But Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who filed the lawsuit, still declared victory.
“I think this is very, very important for precedent, for the future that power does not get abused in this country so that’s what this is all about,” Bailey told WBEZ in a phone interview.
Pritzker’s office vowed to appeal, and pointed to their legal victories in other coronavirus-related cases challenging the governor’s authority.
“Every other court – both state and federal – that has considered these exact issues has agreed with the administration that executive orders protecting Illinoisans’ health and safety are well within the governor’s constitutional authority,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement. “The Governor will continue to urge the people of Illinois to exercise constant vigilance and keep doing what has worked: wash your hands, watch your distance and wear your face covering.”
Pritzker has repeatedly said he won’t hesitate to move a region back into a previous phase of his reopening plan, shutting down certain parts of the economy again, if there’s an increase in cases like southern and western states have seen.
The Democratic governor previously called Bailey’s lawsuit an insult to those who have died of the coronavirus.
In May, Bailey’s fellow House members — including members of his own party — voted to remove him from the floor during session because he refused to cover his face in accordance with rules the House established to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among Illinois’ elected leaders and their staff. Bailey returned the next day with a face covering.
“I’m just not afraid,” Bailey said. “I’m not afraid of anybody. I’m not afraid of a situation. I’m not afraid of anybody. I’m not afraid of what people think if I know that I’m doing the right thing.”
Meanwhile, Pritzker’s administration won a legal victory in a separate lawsuit filed by the Illinois Republican Party.
The state GOP sued to get a federal judge’s order to let it hold political rallies, arguing limitations on how many people could attend is an infringement on their supporters’ First Amendment rights. At the time its lawsuit was filed, the state limited gatherings to no more than 10 people. That cap is now at 50 people.
Judge Sara Ellis ruled Thursday against Republicans, saying the political party’s interest in holding political rallies is important, but it “does not outweigh the Governor’s interest in protecting the health of Illinois’ residents during this unprecedented public health crisis.”
“The risks in doing so are too great,” she wrote.
Pritzker celebrated the federal judge’s decision in a written statement pointing out Illinois has among the lowest rate of positive COVID-19 cases of Midwestern states.“Today’s decision is a win for everyone in Illinois,” a Pritzker spokeswoman said of Ellis’s order. “The administration respects the court’s decision and believes strongly in the First Amendment, and the Governor will continue to urge the people of Illinois to exercise constant vigilance and keep doing what has worked: wash your hands, watch your distance and wear your mask.”
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider vowed to appeal Ellis’s ruling.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.