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Mass. High Court Considers If Baker Overstepped Authority In Pandemic

Gov. Charlie Baker. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Gov. Charlie Baker. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Supreme Judicial Court is considering a legal challenge to Gov. Charlie Baker's executive orders that shut down many businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic. The court heard the case Friday morning, six months into the state of emergency.

An attorney representing business owners and religious leaders told justices on the state's highest court Friday morning that Baker has "turned the government upside down" with his pandemic response.

"No pandemic has ever triggered a Civil Defense Act state of emergency," attorney Michael DeGrandis said on behalf of the plaintiffs, which include business owners in Hubbardston, Lexington, Burlington and Marlborough, the pastors of churches in Westfield and Medford, and the headmaster of Trinity Christian Academy in Barnstable.

DeGrandis contends the governor had no authority to exercise police power under the state's Civil Defense Act.

"All prior states of emergency have been related to military preparedness, weather-related crises and one instance of a natural gas explosion that set fire to at least three towns," said DeGrandis.

The businesses argue the legislature did not intend for the governor to have such power during a pandemic, leaving it instead to local boards of health to handle. The plaintiffs claim if the legislature had wanted the governor to have the power to act during a pandemic, they would have specifically included that in the list of reasons for invoking such power.

Justice Elspeth Cypher pushed back against the claim.

"Don't you have to admit that Gov. Baker's done a pretty darn good job here, especially when you compare him to the other states?" Cypher asked.

DeGrandis indicated the point was irrelevant.

"Whether he has done a good or bad job, whether his policies are right or wrong, isn't relevant to the ultimate question as to whether a disease is a civil defense state of emergency, or to the question as to whether he can exercise a general course police power by issuing his orders," said DeGrandis.

Arguing for the governor, Assistant Attorney General Douglas Martland said the pandemic fits the definition of a natural disaster.

"It arises from a natural cause effect that's undisputed in this case. And it is causing a disaster of massive proportions within the commonwealth and across the country," said Martland.

Martland also said the legislature has had plenty of opportunity to limit the governor's authority if it had desired to do so. He also noted that the legislature appropriated over $1 billion in funds for the state's COVID relief response.

"I think that the facts are clear that there has been a repeated confirmation, ratification and appropriation by the legislature of the governor's actions here," Martland told the justices.

The justices have taken the case under advisement and will issue a ruling at a future date.

With additional reporting by the State House News Service

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Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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