BOSTON — Back in March, all non-essential businesses were ordered closed, people were advised to stay home and life as we knew was about to change completely.
At first, the shutdown was only supposed to last two weeks, but as the pandemic grew, so did the length of time.
At a hearing on Friday, we heard arguments for and against Governor Charlie Baker’s emergency orders during the pandemic. The Supreme Judicial Court now has the case. The legal question in court is whether the civil defense act can be used by the governor during a pandemic.
Luis Morales runs Vida Real Evangelical Center in Somerville and Medford and is one of many in the lawsuit alleging Baker overstepped his authority with the emergency orders during the pandemic.
“I had an issue with a church not being essential from day one because we are essential," said Morales.
Michael DeGrandis, the attorney who argued for the plaintiffs in the case in front of the state’s highest court told Boston 25 over a Zoom call that Baker used the Civil Defense Act, which he says is reserved for disasters like a war-time attack or a hurricane, flood or other natural causes, an order which gives the governor more authority.
“He’s able to re-categorize people’s businesses as essential or non essential and these people have substantive due process rights and property interests that he reclassified and took away in some circumstances,” said DeGrandis.
Massachusetts also has a Public Health Act which gives the governor more limited powers.
“He would not be able to re-classify businesses, shut down some open others,” said DeGrandis. “All of that is about as arbitrary as arbitrary can get.”
Assistant Attorney General Doug Martland, who represents Baker, said these were extreme circumstances that had to be dealt with immediately and efficiently.
“In both 1918 and again [this year] we are dealing with a novel virus which no playbook exists with how to combat it," said Martland.
Martland argued the pandemic was so massive it constituted a disaster under natural causes.
“The Commonwealth needed every tool it had available to it to deal with this pandemic,” said Martland.
Baker commented on the case the day before the hearing, saying, “I find it hard to believe that anybody wouldn’t consider what is going on with COVID-19 to be a disaster that needed to be dealt with."
Morales just wants a ruling that would protect his community for the next time.
“This is serious stuff when it comes to people getting all kinds of fears and who do they call,” said Morales. "Their pastors, their leaders.”
These cases are playing out in other states. We did learn in court today that Rhode Island’s civil defense act specially references pandemics as a trigger for the governor’s powers.
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