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Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects union attempt to defend stay-at-home order
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Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects union attempt to defend stay-at-home order

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series
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Evers news conference

Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (left).

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday swiftly rejected an attempt by employee unions to help defend Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order in court.

The four unions on Tuesday filed a motion to intervene as parties in a lawsuit the Republican Legislature brought last Tuesday to suspend the governor’s “safer at home” order. Doing so would have allowed the unions’ arguments to be heard in court.

But the conservative-dominated court, just hours after the unions submitted their filings, unanimously dismissed the request without providing an explanation. The court’s action could indicate trouble ahead for Evers’ executive order, especially since it has previously sided against Evers in other high-profile cases. Most recently, the court struck down Evers’ order delaying the April 7 election due to COVID-19.

In their motion to join the case, the unions — the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Madison Teachers Inc., SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 — argued the Legislature does not have the constitutional authority to be a party in the case and that the case does not meet the criteria for the Supreme Court to take it up.

Later in the day, Attorney General Josh Kaul, representing the Evers administration, also submitted filings asking the court to reject the Republican lawsuit.

“The Legislature’s attempt to undermine critical public health measures ignores the law and endangers our safety,” Kaul said in a statement.

In his filing, Kaul said Evers and the state Department of Health Services have broad authority to implement public health measures to respond to a pandemic. He said subjecting pandemic management to the Legislature would be too slow to provide a nimble response.

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The unions, which represent teachers, health care and transit workers, said Evers’ order protects them by preventing the spread of COVID-19 at schools, keeping hospitals from overflowing and ensuring health care workers get personal protective equipment. If the court revokes the order, as Republicans want, they said they fear infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths from the respiratory disease will increase and the economy will be threatened even further.

On Tuesday, the state reported 208 additional cases of the disease and 19 deaths, bringing the state total to 6,289 confirmed cases and 300 deaths.

“The outcome of this case will intimately affect all of the union members and the people they care for and love: they will literally remain healthy, get sick or die, depending in large part on how this court rules,” the unions’ attorney, Tamara Packard, wrote in a filing.

COVID-19 cases and deaths

The Republican-controlled Legislature last Tuesday asked the court to suspend Evers’ order following an outcry that it went too far. The order, issued by state health secretary Andrea Palm, took effect March 25; earlier this month, Evers extended it until May 26. The order shut down huge swaths of Wisconsin’s economy and caused the state unemployment rate to skyrocket, with officials estimating it could reach 27%.

Attorneys for the Legislature said the state will be irreparably harmed if the order persists, and that it is arbitrary and capricious and exceeds the administration’s authority.

Facing growing pressure from Republicans to loosen restrictions on businesses, Evers has outlined criteria to reopen the state, including a two-week decline in state cases, more testing, expanded contact tracing and more protective equipment.

Under the plan, the state will begin reopening businesses after a 14-day downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 symptoms, and a 14-day downward trend in positive tests as a percentage of total tests.

The guidelines mostly align with those the Trump administration unveiled last week, but Republicans say Evers has a more restrictive set of criteria for moving to less restrictive conditions.

Photos: A look at how COVID-19 is affecting Wisconsin