Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has taken affirmative steps to limit the virus’s spread. Among other things, she issued dozens of executive orders to help flatten the curve by limiting social gatherings, requiring mask usage, and encouraging social distancing. These measures have had various effects on Michigan businesses and residents. But on October 5, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion curtailing the Governor’s authority to issue or renew COVID-19-related executive orders after April 30, 2020. Let’s dive a little deeper into the background of this case and the questions involved.
The Court dealt with two issues concerning the Emergency Management Act of 1976 (EMA) and Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 (EPGA). Governor Whitmer issued her executive orders regarding COVID-19 under these two acts. These put the Michigan in a “state of emergency” under both the EMA and EPGA on March 10, 2020. These orders also established requirements for face masks, business operations, stay-at-home mandates, and other emergency procedures. On April 1st, Governor Whitmer issued another executive order placing Michigan under a “state of disaster” under the EMA. The legislature extended these states of emergency and disaster until April 30th, 2020. On April 30th, Governor Whitmer re-declared these states of emergency and disaster under these statutes sans legislative approval.
At the beginning of the pandemic Governor Whitmer issued executive order EO 2020-17. It prohibited healthcare facilities from performing nonessential medical procedures under the state of emergency. The case of the Midwest Institute of Health, PLLC vs. Whitmer deals with the legality of the Governor’s emergency powers. You can learn more about the specific timeline of Governor Whitmer’s executive orders here.
The Michigan Supreme Court Opinion
The Michigan Supreme Court considered the question of Governor Whitmer’s ability to issue executive orders under the EMA and EPGA. They concluded the negative; the Governor does not have the authority to declare emergency orders under the EMA and EPGA.
Concerning the EMA, the Court unanimously decided that Governor Whitmer’s redeclaration of the state of emergency every 28 days was unlawful without legislative approval. This means that post-April 30th, it was unlawful for the Governor to redeclare the state of the emergency under the EMA without congress’s go-ahead.
In a 4-3 split, the Court ruled that the EPGA was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the Governor. They cited that the statute grants the Governor emergency powers under the guidelines of “reasonable” and “necessary”. The Court determined that neither term places specific or meaningful limits on the Governor’s actions. Thus, the EPGA itself is unconstitutional.
The ruling in both cases means that Governor Whitmer will need to work with the state legislature on all future COVID-19 measures.
What this means for Michigan Residents and Businesses
This ruling means that the Governor’s executive orders issued after April 30th are unconstitutional. On October 12, 2020, the Court denied Governor Whitmer’s request to delay the effects of the ruling until October 30th to give the state time to “transition”. The Governor’s executive orders are no longer valid, so the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued a COVID-19 order that impacts businesses. This order follows similar guidelines established in the Governor’s now-invalid executive orders, but under alternate authority.
What Michigan employers can expect and prepare for:
- Guidelines like face-mask mandates, social-distancing parameters, and other safety standards for the workplace still apply.
- The order states that employers may not require workers to gather together at the workplace in violation of the order if not “strictly necessary” to perform work duties. The order is somewhat unclear about what circumstances require in-person work. But, if applicable, Michigan businesses should begin documenting why in-person work is necessary for operations.
- Since we do not know precisely how employers can require in-person work, it is not advisable to implement immediate or drastic change. Be sure to carefully review the adjustments made to the guidelines and how they impact the operations of your business.
- If in-person work is necessary, ensure that employees have the appropriate facilities and guidelines to follow the MDHHS order.
- Be sure to check with your local government officials to ensure that you adhere to municipal COVID-19 guidelines.
What residents can expect:
- Guidelines like face-mask mandates, social distancing parameters, and other safety standards issued through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services still apply.
- Just as with businesses, local government guidelines could also impact day-to-day life. If you’re confused about municiple guidelines, contact your local health authorities for more information.
Even though we are all operating amidst great uncertainty, it is certain that Michiganders can expect some changes in the coming months. It is advisable to take it slow when changing your business’s COVID-19 procedures to maintain a sense of stability for your employees and customers.
We know that all of the rapid and dramatic change can be unsettling and confusing for you and your business. We’re here to help. If you’re wondering how this new ruling could impact you, contact the lawyers at Jones Obenchain!