The good news is that more than 1.1 million Wisconsinites — 20% of the state's population — has now been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As the vaccination program expands, it is just beginning to be possible to imagine post-pandemic life.
The bad news is that, before the crisis has passed, more Wisconsinites will die. The exact number of deaths will be determined by several factors, including the speed and efficiency of the vaccination program (so far, so good) and the spread of coronavirus variants that appear to be more virulent than the initial strain. But the number one cause of death will be the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Last Wednesday, the high court’s four right-wing judicial activists — Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and Justices Rebecca Bradley, Annette Ziegler and Brian Hagedorn — tossed out the statewide mask mandate issued by Gov. Tony Evers and blocked the Democratic governor from issuing new public health emergency orders without the approval of the Republican majorities that run the state Assembly and state Senate.
That won’t happen. So Wisconsin will be without a statewide mask mandate at precisely the point when mask wearing is critical to keeping people alive and well until they can be vaccinated. There is no question about the science on this issue — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counsels that people should keep wearing masks, and Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that there is a a danger in lifting public health mandates simply because the number of new cases has declined.
“That is usually a forerunner of another surge," warns Fauci. "We’re in such a good position with the vaccines rolling out in a really good fashion, where we’re vaccinating, you know, maybe 3 million people per day, and every day that goes by we get closer and closer to better control, so we get concerned, when, understandably, states want to cut loose, they want to get back to normal, and they pull back a lot on the restrictions, and that just leads to this danger of rebounding."
Historically, Wisconsin trusted the science and protected public health. That’s why statutes provide the executive branch of state government — the governor and gubernatorial appointees — with the flexibility they need to protect Wisconsinites. In a bizarre attempt to explain the court’s 4-3 decision to prevent Evers from acting in the public interest, Justice Hagedorn wrote: “The question in this case is not whether the governor acted wisely; it is whether he acted lawfully. We conclude he did not.”
Why? Because, Justice Hagedorn claimed, state statutes governing public health emergencies "must be read to forbid the governor from proclaiming repeated states of emergency for the same enabling condition absent legislative approval."
That’s absurd on two levels.
First, the crisis is constantly evolving, as the current question of how to keep people safe during the period when most Wisconsinites are not fully vaccinated illustrates.
Second, the Legislature has refused to act in cooperation with the governor, despite repeated attempts by Evers to find common ground. The Republican leaders of the Assembly and Senate have, by their inaction, relinquished their place at the table.
The whole point of judicial oversight is to resolve disputes of this sort, with an eye toward respecting the intent of state law — which any schoolchild would say is to protect the health and safety of the public. Yet, Hagedorn and the activist majority — all of whom were elected with Republican support — chose to reinterpret the law in order to satisfy the demands of their legislative allies.
Their casual resort to partisanship comes as no surprise. It’s a pattern. But, in this case, it is a pattern that will have deadly consequences.
“This is no run-of-the-mill case. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic,” explained Justice Ann Walsh Bradley is a pointed dissent. “(With) the stakes so high, the majority not only arrives at erroneous conclusions, but it also obscures the consequence of its decision."
The consequences will not be obscured for long. People who should not get sick will get sick. People who should not die will die. And Justices Roggensack, Hagedorn, Ziegler and Rebecca Bradley are to blame.
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