SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court sided with Governor Kate Brown's coronavirus restrictions on Friday, vacating an earlier ruling in a Baker County court that rendered those executive orders "null and void."
The original lawsuit — brought by a coalition of Oregon churches, individuals, and businesses — argued that Brown's executive orders restricting gatherings and workplaces were not consistent with the state constitution or laws. On May 18, Baker County Circuit Court judge Matthew Shirtcliff approved a preliminary injunction, temporarily throwing out Brown's restrictions.
Lawyers for Brown quickly appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, resulting in the court issuing a stay — keeping Brown's orders in place while the court awaited further information from both sides.
On Friday the court issued its decision, vacating the preliminary injunction issued by judge Shirtcliff, saying that it was "based on a legal error."
In its opinion, the Oregon Supreme Court addressed an argument by the plaintiffs and endorsed by judge Shirtcliff that Governor Brown's executive orders had gone beyond their statutory time limits, a provision of the Oregon statute governing "public health emergencies." However, the Governor's orders were issued under a broader state of emergency statute that does not have a similar time limit, and can only be ended by the Governor or the legislature.
"Because the circuit court’s conclusion about the statutory time limit was fundamental to its issuance of the preliminary injunction, it is necessary to vacate the preliminary injunction," the court wrote.
Moreover, the Oregon Supreme Court said, the plaintiffs had not argued that Governor Brown's executive orders violated their constitutional rights to freely exercise their religion or assemble. Instead, the preliminary injunction took broad aim at all of Brown's orders — not only those that might have impacted the plaintiffs' ability to practice their religion — based on the statutory time limits argument.
The court also cited decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court, including a recent ruling on a lawsuit brought against Governor Gavin Newsom of California, that supported elected officials' necessarily broad powers to respond in the event of a public health emergency.
The court's role is to intervene when political leaders attempting to protect the public against an epidemic act in "an arbitrary, unreasonable manner" or in a way that goes "far beyond what is reasonably necessary," the high court wrote in its opinion.
"There have been and will continue to be debates about how best to respond to the threat posed by the coronavirus. Those debates include debates about what balance the government should strike between protecting lives and protecting liberties," the court wrote in its introduction to the decision. "To the extent that those debates concern policy choices, they are properly for policymakers. That is, those difficult choices must be made by the people's representatives in the legislative and executive branches of the government."
The full Oregon Supreme Court opinion may be seen here or read below.