Gov. Kate Brown in her Portland office (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Freedom from state restrictions proved fleeting as the Oregon Supreme Court on Monday night left intact pandemic-related orders by Gov. Kate Brown.
For now, Brown’s limits on business and her “stay home” requirements remain in place across Oregon even as she moves the state towards relaxed conditions.
But for a few hours Monday, her directives were stripped of their legal authority and Oregonians appeared free to work, play and travel without limits.
A state judge on Monday ruled that Brown’s executive orders related to the global pandemic were “null and void,” saying they had expired. He ruled in a case filed in Baker County Circuit Court by 10 churches and individual plaintiffs who sought the right to conduct church services.
Within hours, Brown took the matter to the state Supreme Court, asking the high court to step in and overturn the state judge’s decision and resulting injunction.
At 7:45 p.m. Monday, the governor got that when Supreme Court Justice Thomas Balmer issued a three-paragraph order.
“The trial court’s preliminary injunction is stayed,” Balmer said.
He acted after Brown and those suing the governor submitted filings to the Supreme Court on Monday afternoon. He gave those lawyers representing the plaintiffs until Friday, May 22, to file responses to the governor’s court action.
Brown wasted little time Monday night taking to Twitter to share the development and issue a statement.
“There are no shortcuts for us to return to life as it was before this pandemic,” Brown said. “Moving too quickly could return Oregon to the early days of this crisis, when we braced for overfilled hospitals and ventilators in short supply.”
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 10 churches across the state by the Pacific Justice Institute, a religious freedom advocacy group which argued that the order violated their constitutional rights. Peoples Church of Salem is one of those suing.
Kevin Mannix, a Salem lawyer long involved in state politics, later joined the lawsuit on behalf of businesses and individuals across the state arguing that they had been harmed by the orders.
Among those joining the case under Mannix’s action were Grant County Commissioner Sam Palmer and his brother, Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer. The chair of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, Bill Harvey, also joined the suit against Brown.
Baker Circuit Judge Matt Shirtcliff ruled that Brown’s orders were “null and void” because she invoked legal authority that can last no more than 28 days.
In challenging that conclusion, the governor and the state Justice Department said the judge misstated the governor’s authority, pointing to another state law that gave the governor power to impose restrictions. That authority didn’t expire, they said.
The legal tussling comes as some Oregonians are getting more restive about restrictions imposed by the governor after she declared an emergency on March 8. The governor’s most dramatic order came March 23, when she ordered certain businesses closed, directed Oregonians to stay home except for essential chores, and limited gatherings.
That restriction on gatherings resulted in churches across Oregon ending in-person services.
Last week, Brown relaxed her directives in most Oregon counties, allowing restaurants to serve dinner and personal service businesses such as hairdressers to return to work.
She left intact limits in Marion and Polk counties over concerns that hospitalizations in the two counties were too high. County commissioners have sought reconsideration and Brown could decide as soon as Wednesday whether the Salem area can join the rest of the state in moving towards normalcy in business operations and social gatherings.
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