BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana Supreme Court on Monday sent a legal feud between Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republicans over coronavirus restrictions back to district court, saying the judge ruled too quickly that the state law the GOP used to try to nullify the restrictions was unconstitutional.
The justices wrote in their opinion that Baton Rouge Judge William Morvant should have held a full hearing on other issues raised in the lawsuit over the Democratic governor's statewide mask mandate, business restrictions and crowd size limits aimed at combating the spread of COVID-19.
“We find the district court acted prematurely in reaching the issue of constitutionality,” the justices wrote.
The high court's decision was a technical one that didn't weigh in on the merits of the lawsuit, the governor's regulations or the legal maneuver used by the House GOP. Instead, it requires Morvant to hold another hearing in the case.
The Edwards administration intends to continue enforcing its COVID-19 rules while the case is pending. The governor has since issued tougher restrictions than those that drew objections from House Republicans, as Louisiana sees a spike in coronavirus cases.
“Nothing about the Supreme Court’s decision changes the fact that the mitigation measures remain in place and that they remain as important as ever," Edwards' chief lawyer, Matthew Block, said in a statement.
In October, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and 64 other GOP lawmakers in the House — represented by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry — invoked a never-before-used process in Louisiana law that allows a majority of legislators in either the House or Senate to sign a petition to jettison a governor’s emergency declaration.
Edwards sued Schexnayder and lawmakers. The governor argued the petition process used by House Republicans violated the Louisiana Constitution, and he said the lawmakers also didn't follow the law’s requirement that they consult with the state’s “public health authority” before issuing the petition.
Morvant ruled on Nov. 12 for the governor, saying the petition was unconstitutional because Edwards' emergency rules have the force of law and couldn't be blocked by an action of one legislative body.
The Louisiana Supreme Court said that decision was premature. The justices said Morvant should have first considered Edwards' argument that the House GOP didn't consult with the public health authority as required.
“For well over a century, this court has consistently refrained from entertaining questions as to the constitutionality of laws except where that determination is essential to the decision,” the court wrote.
Landry praised the ruling as showing that "Louisiana is not a dictatorship.”
“No elected official, including the governor, can ignore or reject the checks and balances that underpin our government," the attorney general said in a statement.
Block said he's confident the Supreme Court will uphold the governor's orders when it hears the case on its merits.
One of Louisiana's seven Supreme Court justices, John Weimer, disagreed with his colleagues. He said both the House speaker and the governor have requested that the court decide the constitutional question, and he said the context of the current coronavirus public health emergency raises the urgency of the issue.
“Given the context and conditions under which this case arises, I believe this court has a responsibility to address the constitutional issue presented and resolve it: a task squarely within this court’s province and duty,” Weimer wrote in his dissent.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.