MADISON — Racine’s power-grabbing health officer broke the law when she issued an order closing all schools, public and private, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.
The decision marked another loss for unelected bureaucrats expanding the bounds of their authority during the pandemic.
“The Court determined, once again, that a local public health officer violated the law when it ordered all schools in her jurisdiction closed. This marks another important case reminding public officials that emergencies do not override the rule of law,” said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which took Racine Public Health Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox to court.
Bowersox issued an order on Nov. 12 closing all school buildings in the city of Racine from Nov. 27 to Jan. 15. The order was ostensibly a means of addressing COVID-19. By this time WILL had already filed an original action to the Wisconsin Supreme Court challenging Dane County’s school closure order and obtained an order enjoining it.
WILL filed an original action to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on November 19, on behalf of a group of Racine parents, schools, and membership associations and similarly earned a temporary injunction blocking Racine’s school order while the Court decided the challenge to Dane County.
On June 11, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a 4-3 decision in WCRIS v. Heinrich making clear that the Dane County health department lacked the authority to issue an order closing all schools, public and private, in August 2020. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, said, “Local health officers do not have the statutory authority to close schools under” Wisconsin statute 252.03.
The court’s decision last week confirms Racine’s public health officer similarly lacked authority and declares her order invalid.
While casting her vote for the ruling, liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet offered her continued defense of extended power for government officials.
The plaintiffs also had asked the court to hold a contempt hearing on the actions of Bowersox, who effectively thumbed her nose at the temporary restraining order. The court narrowly denied the requests.
Justice Annette Ziegler respectfully dissented on that aspect of the ruling, “because Bowersox appears to have intentionally resisted and disobeyed an order of this court.”
“Consequently, a contempt proceeding is appropriate and should occur,” the conservative justice wrote. She was joined by two other conservatives on the court, Justices Rebecca G. Bradley and Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. The court’s other conservative, Justice Brian Hagedorn, who has become more of a swing vote, joined with liberals in denying further action in the case.