The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that Gov. Baker has the power to order businesses shut and to limit the size of gatherings during a public-health emergency, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.
The ruling by the state's highest court comes in a suit brought by health clubs and tanning salons, including the Bare Bottom Tanning Salon, several churches, a conference center and an Italian restaurant in the North End - Antico Forno.
The court started by saying that the state civil-defense law, enacted in 1950 to deal with the aftermath of nuclear attacks and large natural disasters, does, in fact, let the governor issue public-health restrictions.
Although the 1950 law does not specifically mention pandemics as a reason to let the governor sign emergency orders, it does refer to "other natural causes" in its list of disasters.
"We note first that COVID-19 is naturally caused, as scientists believe it originated from an animal, likely a bat," the court begins, continuing that the phrase therefore "encompasses a pandemic on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic."
Given that COVID-19is a pandemic that has killed over a million people worldwide, it spreads from person to person, effective vaccines have not yet been distributed, there is no known cure, and a rise in cases threatens to overrun the Commonwealth's hospital system, it is a natural cause for which action is needed to "protect the public peace, health, security and safety, and to preserve the lives and property of the people of the commonwealth."
The court, which noted that after issuing his orders, Baker issued followup orders easing the restrictions as the epidemic waned over the summer, also held that a public-health emergency involving a highly contagious disease lets a governor set restrictions on such things as the number of people who can congregate in a restaurant or church. It cited a 1905 Supreme Court case in which the Supreme Court upheld a fine levied against a Cambridge minister who refused a smallpox vaccination for himself and his son in the midst of a smallpox epidemic.
It added that this past May, the Supreme Court again upheld that 1905 decision, in a case in which a church sued California over that state's attendance limits, in which Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
The Constitution principally entrusts '[t]he safety and health of the people' to the politically accountable officials of the States 'to guard and protect.'
The court also rejected the argument that Baker's orders cross over into the authority of the legislature, that his orders are valid executive actions aimed at carrying out the will of the legislature, generally in the case of the Civil Defense Act and more specifically about Covid-19. The court noted the orders didn't stop the legislature from passing several Covid-19 laws, including a moratorium on foreclosure and a law allowing for the expansion of take-out and delivery options by restaurants.