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Judge: GOP petition blocking virus rules is unconstitutional

November 12, 2020 GMT
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks about the coronavirus, while Attorney General Jeff Landry, center, and LSU football coach Ed Orgeron listen, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. A Louisiana judge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 rejected an effort by Republican state House members to force an end to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and other restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks about the coronavirus, while Attorney General Jeff Landry, center, and LSU football coach Ed Orgeron listen, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. A Louisiana judge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 rejected an effort by Republican state House members to force an end to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and other restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks about the coronavirus, while Attorney General Jeff Landry, center, and LSU football coach Ed Orgeron listen, on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. A Louisiana judge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020 rejected an effort by Republican state House members to force an end to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and other restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (AP) — A Louisiana judge on Thursday rejected an effort by Republican state House members to force an end to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and other restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At issue was a petition signed by 65 GOP members of the House, ordering Edwards to, in effect, rescind a proclamation ordering the restrictions. The petition was issued under an obscure section of a 2003 state law allowing a majority in either the House or the Senate to sign a petition forcing the governor to end a public health emergency declaration.

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State District Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge declared the provision unconstitutional. Lawyers for the House and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry were expected to quickly appeal to the state Supreme Court. COVID-19.

At issue was a petition signed by 65 GOP members of the House, ordering Edwards to, in effect, rescind a proclamation ordering the restrictions. The petition was issued under an obscure section of a 2003 state law allowing a majority in either the House or the Senate to sign a petition forcing the governor to end a public health emergency declaration.

State District Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge declared the provision unconstitutional. Lawyers for the House and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry were expected to quickly appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Morvant, who presided over an online hearing viewable by the public, first ruled against the petition because it specifically addresses a proclamation Edwards made in October that has since expired and been replaced by a new order. That made the issue moot, he ruled.

But Morvant also said the Edwards proclamation has the force of law under state statutes and couldn’t be blocked by an action of one legislative body.

“The House acting alone — I think it’s unconstitutional,” Morvant said.

Landry’s office argues the petition provision is a necessary and constitutional check on a governor’s power. It is part of a broad, 27-page 2003 bill on how the state addresses a public health emergency. That bill was passed in both legislative chambers, noted Elizabeth Murrill, from Landry’s office.

“Today, the Court effectively ruled the Governor may make law without any legislative oversight — this turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards,” Landry said in a statement soon after the ruling.

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Edwards, in a later statement, praised the ruling. “I have long said the law some members of the House were attempting to use is unconstitutional and I am pleased the judge agreed,” he said.

Lawmakers met in special session last month in hopes of limiting Edwards’ emergency powers. But Edwards vetoed the resulting legislation.

Edwards renewed last week his latest round of restrictions — including the mask mandate and limits on public gatherings, as well as bar and restaurant capacity — after Morvant refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the restrictions pending Thursday’s hearing.

The dispute comes amid a surge of coronavirus cases nationwide. Louisiana was an early hot spot as the virus spread in the spring, and it suffered a second surge over the summer. Edwards has repeatedly made the case that the restrictions he’s ordered, in compliance with state law, have helped Louisiana avoid another major surge.

Cases in the state are increasing: Louisiana’s health department reported 2,173 new cases Thursday, a two-day total since the state didn’t report on Wednesday. However, reported COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped from 684 to 676. Hospitalizations have remained consistently below 700 since mid-September, and well below a July peak of about 1,600.

Edwards’ office on Wednesday released the weekly report it gets from the White House showing that Louisiana had 96 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people last week. That was a 31% increase from the week before, but it was below the national average of 209 per 100,000 people.

In addition to challenging the constitutionality of the petition advanced by only the House, attorneys for Edwards argued the petition was not signed in consultation with the state health department secretary and state health officer as the law requires, and that it was signed behind closed doors in violation of state open meetings law. Morvant did not address those issues Thursday.

Morvant’s ruling was the latest court victory for Edwards against multiple lawsuits challenging his virus restrictions. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Baton Rouge dismissed the latest challenge by the Rev. Tony Spell, a pastor who had openly defied early restrictions on church services that have since been eased.

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Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak