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Michigan’s Democratic Governor Beats Legal Challenge to Stay-at-Home Order in State Court

A Michigan judge on Wednesday rejected a legal challenge filed in state court against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter-in-place executive order, ruling that the governor did not exceed her constitutional authority in requiring most residents to remain in their home during the coronavirus pandemic unless engaging in certain essential or limited outdoor activities.

In an 18-page decision, Court of Claims Judge Christopher M. Murray denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction halting enforcement of the stay-at-home order, reasoning that they did not have a “substantial likelihood of success on the merits” because the asserted infringements on their constitutional rights were subject to a balancing test with the state’s interest in protecting the public health.

“This is not because the rights asserted by plaintiffs are not fundamental—being forced (with some important exceptions) by the state to remain in one’s home, in turn causing many residents to be unable to work, visit elderly relatives, and to generally move about the state,” Judge Murray wrote. “But those liberty interests are, and always have been, subject to society’s interests—society being our fellow residents. They—our fellow residents—have an interest to remain unharmed by a highly communicable and deadly virus, and since the state entered the Union in 1837, it has had the broad power to act for the public health of the entire state when faced with a public crisis.”

Judge Murray conceded that Whitmer’s efforts to stymie the spread of the virus were extreme, but said they were also necessary for public safety.

“It is true that this measure is a severe one, and greatly restricts each of our liberties to move about as we see fit, as we do in normal times. But the governor determined that severe measures were necessary, and had to be quickly implemented to prevent the uncontrolled spreading of the virus,” he wrote.

Michigan health officials reported 1,137 new cases of coronavirus disease Wednesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the state to 40,399, with 3,670 related deaths.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel – who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit – praised the ruling on Thursday.

“This pandemic has already taken more than 3,600 lives in Michigan and many more around the world,” she said in a statement. “The primary goal of the Stay Home, Stay Safe order has always been to protect human life.”

A version of the lawsuit was also filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan earlier in April by five Michigan residents (the lead plaintiff in both cases was Steve Martinko). It alleged that Whitmer violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights with an executive order that went as far as to ban travel between homes within the state.

“Notwithstanding their legitimate public purpose, Governor Whitmer’s Orders halted all economic activity and violates fundamental rights protected by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Michigan,” the lawsuit stated.

The docket in the federal case shows the outcome is still pending.

See below for Judge Murray’s full ruling:

Michigan Whitmer Order by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Photo by Elaine Cromie/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.