Emergency management

UMLC drills down on the governor’s authority to declare a state of emergency.

Nearly two years after Gov. Tim Walz first assumed emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to rule whether his peacetime emergency declaration was lawful.

It’s a step in the right direction for the 16 Minnesota citizens, business owners, and churches who challenged the governor’s authority to impose a mask mandate in August 2020.

“Emergencies can be dealt with in other ways, but Gov. Walz chose to reconfigure the entire social fabric of the state and pick winners and losers,” says James Dickey, senior counsel for the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC). “He didn’t have the authority to assume emergency powers and start issuing executive orders, and we’ve asked the court to recognize that.”

Some portions of the lawsuit and its appeals were dismissed. But the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the citizens that the extent of the governor’s authority to declare an emergency is “an important issue of statewide significance that should be decided immediately.”

The appellants first challenged Walz’s emergency powers one month after he imposed his statewide mask mandate via executive order. Represented by UMLC, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, they argued that the mask mandate exceeded the governor’s constitutional authority.

“Governor Walz’ use of Chapter 12 of the Minnesota Statutes has impacted the State of Minnesota and its residents in breathtaking fashion,” the lawsuit reads. “His orders are seemingly limitless in their scope… And the only practical temporal limitation on Governor Walz’ claimed executive power appears to be the end of his term.”

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by Ramsey County District Court. UMLC appealed the decision, but by the time the appeal was heard, the mask mandate — along with Walz’s peacetime emergency — had ended. As such, the whole case was rejected on the grounds that it was now a moot point. UMLC then appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

But now the Minnesota Supreme Court says the question of the governor’s powers under the Minnesota Emergency Management Act is “undoubtedly an issue of statewide significance,” and therefore must be clarified before another crisis occurs.

So, is Minnesota’s governor allowed to declare a peacetime emergency because of a pandemic? The Minnesota Emergency Management Act says that the governor can declare such an emergency under very specific conditions. The threat must “endanger life and property,” and local governments must be unable to handle the crisis themselves. According to Dickey, Walz never showed that the COVID-19 pandemic met those requirements.

Now that the Supreme Court has sent the case back to the Court of Appeals, it must decide whether Walz’s peacetime emergency — and the executive orders that were issued as a result — exceeded his powers as governor.

“We appealed to the Supreme Court because Walz was trying to evade a decision on the merits related to the emergency powers that he believed he had,” Dickey says. “The Supreme Court agreed with us that the Court of Appeals must decide.”