Story at a glance

  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision Friday that local health departments do not have the power to close schools during public health emergencies.
  • Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich aimed to shut down schools last fall in part due to state statute granting officials to take "reasonable and necessary" measures to protect the public’s health.
  • The state’s highest court determined it was not Heinrich’s right.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision Friday that local health departments do not have the power to close schools during public health emergencies. 

The court's conservative majority additionally concluded that Public Health Madison & Dane County’s closure of schools last year was a violation of a school’s constitutional rights, The Associated Press reported. 

Public Health Madison and Dane County Director Janel Heinrich aimed to shut down schools last fall in part due to state statute granting officials to take "reasonable and necessary" measures to protect the public’s health. The order, which was issued in August, prohibited in-person instruction for students from grades three to 12. The state’s highest court determined it was not Heinrich’s right. 

"The power to take measures 'reasonable and necessary' cannot be reasonably read as an open-ended grant of authority," Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority, according to The Journal Times. "Doing so would swallow the rest of the statute and render it mere surplusage."

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and justices Pat Roggensack and Brian Hagedorn joined Bradley in the decision. 

Writing for the dissent, Justice Rebecca Dallet argued there was “no textual evidence” for her colleagues to determine that “when the legislature directed local health officers to take 'all' measures reasonable and necessary to control a disease outbreak, it did not mean exactly what it said.”

"Reading in to the statute a phantom restriction impossibly requires the legislature to write statutes today that specifically address all potential situations in the future, even those 'not readily imagined,’” Dallet continued. 


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Heinrich said the court’s ruling would no longer allow the department to use the statute to protect students from “preventable Illnesses” like “measles, pertussis (whooping cough) or flu outbreak,” The Journal Times reported. 

"This ruling impedes our ability to respond to any disease that might impact students, teachers and school staff, and impacts family and friends beyond the walls of the school. Unnecessary, preventable illness may certainly occur as a result of this ruling," she said in a statement.

Yet Rick Ensberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and legal representative for several of the plaintiffs, argued the ruling was a correction to government overreach.

“The order from Public Health Madison and Dane County closing all county schools was illegal, unnecessary and unconstitutional," he said in a statement. "Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, the court’s decision provides a critical correction that ought to prevent future abuses of power in an emergency.”


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Published on Jun 11, 2021