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GOP lawsuit threat ramps up COVID-19 response tensions

protesters at the capitol
Rick Pluta
Michigan Radio

Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued new executive orders Thursday night to extend Michigan’s COVID-19 state of emergency for another four weeks. That was after Republicans in the Legislature refused her request to extend the emergency through May 28th.

The Legislature’s Republican leaders say they are ready to go to court to block future use of the emergency powers the governor has exercised to address the coronavirus crisis.

It’s been plain for a while that this showdown between the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s Republican leadership was coming. GOP leaders made clear they were not going to allow another 28-day extension of the governor’s emergency declaration. A shorter period, maybe, but not 28 days.

we <3 whitmer sign
Credit Rick Pluta / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Supporters posted signs in downtown Lansing to support Governor Whitmer.

But Whitmer said it’s clear an emergency still exists – and it’s not going away soon.

“It defies common sense and it defies science to make any declaration otherwise.”

Whitmer appeared on a townhall that was broadcast statewide. She said efforts to tame the spread of COVID-19 are starting to show results. But, she said, the numbers are a grim reminder of how serious the situation remains.

“For anyone to declare ‘mission accomplished’ means they’re turning a blind eye to the fact that over 600 people have died in the last 72 hours. Another thousand people were diagnosed as COVID-19 positive, that we have sectors of the state where the numbers are continuing to climb that we are watching very closely.”

The governor’s announcement capped a day of protests at the Capitol.

There were speeches on the Capitol steps. Some of the demonstrators carried guns. Some carried guns into the building. Some tried to force their way into the House chamber but were held off by law enforcement.

A caravan of cars and trucks drove through downtown and around the Capitol. Some people got out of their vehicles, including Cindy and Ted Birnbaum, who came to Lansing from Saginaw to take part.

protesters holding signs
Credit Rick Pluta / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ted and Cindy Birnbaum of Saginaw were part of the Capitol protest

Ted Birnbaum says he’s opposed to almost all the restrictions.

“Really, people, most reasonable people, are going to voluntarily protect their own interests, and that’s really the way it should have been done.”

Republicans in the Legislature adopted a bill to rein in Whitmer’s executive power – that’s headed for a guaranteed veto.

But Republicans also adopted a resolution that allows GOP leaders to file a lawsuit if the governor tried to extend her emergency declaration.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield said the governor should be lifting restrictions more quickly.

“There is a misnomer out there, a complete false narrative, that you either have to choose public health, or you have to choose jobs to put food on the table, or you have to choose constitutional rights because in a time of crisis you can’t have all three, and that is false.”

University of Michigan constitutional law professor Richard Primus said he doesn’t think Republicans have a strong case because of Michigan’s 1945 emergency manager law. 
“It gives the governor broad power to respond as necessary to emergencies, including public health emergencies…”

Heavily armed protesters entered the state Capitol Thursday.
Credit State Sen. Dayna Polehanki
Heavily armed protesters entered the state Capitol Thursday.

Republican lawmakers, though, say there’s a later, 1976 law, which is more limited in scope. Primus says he does not think that’s a winning argument.

“It also gives the governor broad powers to act in a range of emergencies, and has a lot of specific provisions also about what sorts of regulations that are supposed to kick in those emergencies.”

Primus says the later law does not abrogate the earlier law.

But a courtroom debate over that technicality would mean the governor and the Legislature are engaged in a legal conflict over how the state is managing the COVID-19 crisis at the same time that it is trying to manage the crisis.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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