The state's highest court on Thursday upheld Gov. Charlie Baker's authority to issue executive orders that shut down many businesses in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the court cautioned that as the pandemic wanes that authority could as well.
Business owners and religious leaders sued Baker claiming that the state Legislature didn't intend for the governor to have so much power during the pandemic and decisions about shutdowns should have been left to the local boards of health.
The plaintiffs, which included hair and tanning salons, a gym, restaurants and religious institutions, said Massachusetts law didn't specify that Baker had the power to declare a state of an emergency during a pandemic or health crisis.
But the Supreme Judicial Court justices disagreed, saying that state law gave the governor "expansive discretionary powers" in the face of an emergency. The court wrote that the law does include the phrase "other natural causes," and the pandemic fit firmly within that definition.
"We conclude that the [Civil Defense Act] CDA, through the phrase 'other natural causes,' encompasses a health crisis on the level of the COVID-19 pandemic," Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote in the decision.
The court said the emergency orders issued on March 10 did not violate the plaintiffs' federal or state constitutional rights to procedural and substantive due process or free assembly.
The justices, however, said that as the COVID-19 pandemic improves, the governor may not have the same authority he holds at the height of the crisis. The court added that other public health crises may not require a statewide response, and the governor's authority would be limited there.
"Although we hold that the COVID-19 pandemic falls within the CDA, we do not hold that all public health emergencies necessarily will fall within the CDA, nor do we hold that when the public health data regarding COVID-19 demonstrates stable improvement, the threshold will not be crossed where it no longer constitutes an emergency under the CDA," the decision said.
Baker praised the court's decision on Thursday.
"We've tried pretty hard to be balanced and as reasonable and as fair as we could be in this very difficult time and this very difficult circumstance and I appreciate the SJC's decision with respect to those issues," Baker said.
No justices wrote a dissent.