Oregon ruling on gubernatorial power could be first of many

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have been among the most aggressive governors in America in taking emergency action to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The restrictions they imposed, from banning gatherings of more than a few people and closing restaurants to sit-down dining, have succeeded in virus control but with social and economic costs.

As the weeks are turning into months, many are wanting to see the restrictions eased faster than the governors want. And legal action is being taken.

A case filed in Oregon’s Baker County is worth keeping an eye on as the Oregon Supreme Court will soon be looking at the limits of gubernatorial power.

While the outcome will only apply to Oregon, it will shine light on the arguments likely to be made in Washington state and elsewhere in future efforts to overturn or limit emergency declarations made by governors.

On Monday, Baker County Circuit Judge Matthew B. Shirtcliff ruled Brown’s executive order in response to the pandemic exceeded a 28-day limit adopted by state lawmakers. Therefore, he said, the orders were no longer valid. The lawsuit was filed by 10 churches seeking to hold services following social-distancing guidelines.

But about an hour before the sun set on Monday, state Supreme Court Presiding Justice Thomas A. Balmer put the Baker County decision on hold.

Balmer’s decision, which came at 7:45 p.m., calls for the entire high court to consider the state’s petition to dismiss Shirtcliff’s ruling. The presiding justice wants the material to be considered entered into the record Friday.

Stay tuned. Whatever the outcome, it’s likely to be appealed. It probably will spur other lawsuits, most of which will be emotionally charged for those challenging the emergency powers of governors.

However, the basic arguments — on both sides — will likely focus on the powers of the executive branch of government (governors) versus the legislative branch (the House and Senate).

At what point do state legislatures get a say about governors’ restrictions on gatherings, businesses opening and other mandates?

Those questions are already being asked inside the capitols in Salem and Olympia.

The answers will be coming, perhaps soon, from state courts and then, ultimately, from the U.S. Supreme Court.

But for now, all eyes are on the courthouse in Baker City to see how this unfolds.