Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Challenging Local Stay-At-Home Orders In Wisconsin

Judge: Complaint Was Too Broad, Narrower Argument Could Revive Case

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Tim Evanson (CC-BY-SA)

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging local governments’ restrictions on people and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed in May by a group of 17 plaintiffs including business owners, a pastor, a protest organizer and a candidate for Congress. They argued the local orders violate their First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights.

The local government officials named in the case are in communities across Wisconsin, including Milwaukee County, Dane County, Door County, Outagamie County, Winnebago County, Rock County, Green County, Kenosha County, Appleton, Grand Chute, Racine, Oshkosh and Wisconsin Dells.

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In an order issued Tuesday morning, federal Judge William Griesbach dismissed the case on a technicality, rather than ruling on its merits. Griesbach said the people who brought the case were trying to challenge too many entities in one lawsuit.

“Leaving aside the now invalidated (statewide stay-at-home order), each plaintiff is subject to different orders implemented by different individuals on behalf of different governmental entities in different parts of the State in which presumably different rates of infection, population density, and other pertinent conditions exist,” he wrote in the ruling. “Under these circumstances, Defendants’ actions cannot be reasonably viewed as arising out of the same transaction or occurrence or raising common issues of law or fact.”

Griesbach said plaintiffs have 30 days to offer a narrower complaint to the court, which would essentially begin a new case.

The conflict over legality of local government restrictions related to COVID-19 began after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the statewide stay-at-home order on May 13. The court ruled Gov. Tony Evers’ administration exceeded its authority when it issued the statewide order unilaterally. The court’s majority said the order should have been issued through the emergency rules process, which gives the Legislature, controlled by Republicans, veto power over rules.

Several counties and municipalities issued their own restrictions immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, but many backed off, citing legal concerns.

Several local governments across Wisconsin have COVID-19 related restrictions in place. Those include Dane and Milwaukee counties.

The cities of Green Bay, Superior and Racine are among those considering ordinances that require residents to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Milwaukee and Bayfield passed mask ordinances last week.

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