(The Center Square) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court is putting a check on the power of Dane County’s health commissioner.
The court on Thursday agreed to consider a legal challenge to the county’s order that stopped all schools in the county, both public and private, from opening for in-person classes this fall.
A majority of justices say the county doesn’t have the power to close schools, and the order to do so is a First Amendment overreach.
“Overriding the choices of parents and schools, who also undoubtedly care about the health and safety of their teachers and families, intrudes upon the freedoms ordinarily retained by the people under our constitutional design,” the court’s majority wrote.
Dane County Public Health Director Janel Heinrich on Aug. 21 issued an order that banned schools from conducting in-person classes because of rising coronavirus numbers.
On Thursday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the coronavirus is still a threat in the county, and the order to keep kids home is as important as ever.
“Public Health’s order prioritized the safety and well-being of kids, parents, teachers and the communities they call home,” Parisi said in a statement. “[Thursday’s] order will jeopardize those goals and may lead to more illness and needless human suffering.”
Rick Esenberg, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), which is one of the outside groups challenging Dane County’s order, says the court’s decision to put Dane County’s order on hold actually gets to a bigger point.
“We are heartened that the Court concluded that our argument is likely to succeed on the merits and, for now, barred the closing of private schools. Our clients will be able to do what they do – educating children in Dane County.”
The Supreme Court also ordered a temporary injunction be placed on the county’s school-closure order. Esenberg says that means schools in and around Madison can open if they’d like.
The high court is giving WILL and other groups 30 days to file a new lawsuit; the county will then have 20 days to respond. Oral arguments will come after all that.