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Michigan court upholds Whitmer's power to extend stay-at-home order

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had the right to extend the state's stay-at-home order and extend the state of emergency, the Michigan Court of Claims ruled Thursday, rejecting a lawsuit filed by Republicans in the state legislature who challenged her emergency powers in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The court ruled that the Democratic governor had operated under the "broad" powers within her executive authority to extend the state of emergency under the Emergency Powers of Governors Act (EPGA) from 1945. It also said that she had exceeded her power under the Emergency Management Act (EMA) of 1976, the other act that Whitmer cited in extending the state of emergency in April. That act requires the legislature to approve an extension to a state of emergency after 28 days. However, it appears that Whitmer would be able to extend a state of emergency under the 1945 act.

"Today's decision recognizes that the Governor's actions to save lives are lawful and her orders remain in place," the governor's office said in a statement. "She will continue to do what she's always done: take careful, decisive actions to protect Michiganders from this unprecedented, global pandemic."

Whitmer said in an interview on CNN Friday evening that she "was grateful for the victory today in court."

The Republican-controlled legislature filed its lawsuit after Whitmer extended the state of emergency through May 28th without its approval at the end of April. 

Republicans argued that the emergency powers law from 1945 only pertains to local emergencies, rather than statewide emergencies. Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens rejected that argument, writing in her ruling that "the EPGA was intended to confer 'sufficiently broad power' on the Governor in order to enable her to respond to public disaster or crisis."

"It is apparent the EPGA employs broad terminology that empowers the Governor to act for the best interests of all the citizens of this state, not just the citizens of a particular county or region," Judge Stephens wrote. 

On the issue of the 1976 law, though, Judge Stephens wrote that Whitmer was not able to extend a state of emergency on her own using that law. But under the court's ruling recognizing her broad authority as governor, Whitmer would be able to cite the 1945 law in extending a state of emergency next week, should she decide to take that avenue.

Republicans are planning to appeal the decision. At the end of the oral arguments held on May 15, Stephens anticipated that the case would likely be decided by the Michigan Supreme Court.

"Although it kept the Governor's emergency orders in place, the Court of Claims agreed with the Legislature that the Governor broke the law in unilaterally declaring a state of emergency without legislative consent," Gideon D'Assandro, communications director for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said in a statement. "The Speaker is reviewing the ruling in detail but he expects to continue standing up for the rule of law."

Michigan has been hit hard by COVID-19, which has killed more than 5,000 Michiganders. The state has the ninth highest deaths per capita as of Thursday afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins data.

The devastation caused Whitmer to issue strict stay-at-home orders, which she has begun to loosen. Whitmer announced at a press conference on Thursday morning that retail businesses and auto dealerships can reopen by appointment starting May 26. Non-essential medical, dental and veterinary procedures may resume on May 29. Whitmer also immediately allowed gatherings of up to 10 people, as long as attendees practice social distancing. 

On Friday, retail businesses, along with bars and restaurants, in parts of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula will be able to reopen with certain restrictions. Bars and restaurants can only go up to 50% capacity, must keep groups six feet apart and servers need to wear masks. The areas opening up are common vacation spots where some Michiganders own second homes, but Whitmer encouraged people to "think long and hard" before visiting those regions to avoid possibly spreading the virus. 

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