On March 10, while students at the University of Michigan returned from Spring Break, Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency through an executive order as the first two COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Michigan. Beginning March 13, Whitmer announced a string of executive orders that have continued throughout the fall. These orders have restricted business openings and large gatherings across the state to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus that has infected more than 112,000 people and killed nearly 7,000 in the state of Michigan.

Michigan was initially one of the hardest hit states, facing personal protective equipment shortages and immense strain on the healthcare system. While the virus ran rampant through Michigan’s medical centers, far-right conservatives protested the restrictions imposed by the governor due to their restrictive nature. Nearly six months later, Republican lawmakers continue to raise questions about the legality of Whitmer’s executive actions over the course of the pandemic. 

Highlighted in oral arguments heard by the court last week, the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945 is an act that gives the governor the ability to issue executive orders in the event of a public crisis of any kind. The legislation specifies instances in which the order can be enacted, including rioting, catastrophe or disaster when public safety is imperiled. The order, however, does not address a public health emergency such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit is currently pending before the Republican-controlled Michigan Supreme Court. 

David Viviano, Michigan Supreme Court Justice, was vocal during the oral arguments about the act. During the hearing, Viviano cited public health code provisions specifically put in place and used by other states for events like a pandemic as an alternative to the governor’s executive power. 

“Do you think the (Michigan) Legislature was smart enough in 1945 to know what an epidemic was?” Viviano said at the hearing. 

On Sept. 9, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, announced a lawsuit against Whitmer over her use of emergency powers. The lawsuit alleges that the 1945 Emergency Powers Act and Whitmer’s use of it is unconstitutional.

Previously, on Aug. 21, a Michigan court of appeals ruled Whitmer was within her authority to maintain these emergency orders amid the pandemic 2-1.

The office of Governor Whitmer declined to comment on the story citing the pending and ongoing litigation. 

Ryan Fisher, the University’s chapter of College Republicans’ Chairman and LSA junior, told The Daily this hearing will work to provide transparency for Michigan residents, something he says is needed. 

“I imagine the hearing will uncover some of the rationale that influenced the governor’s decisions,” Fisher said. “This is a move that could only aid transparency, something which many Michiganders thought was lacking through the process this summer.”

Fisher acknowledged the good and the bad of Whitmer’s pandemic response, but said his main concern is whether or not these restrictions were oppressive. 

“On one hand, cases decreased in relative terms compared to other states and we were ultimately permitted to return for school,” Fisher said. “On the other, the response hurts select populations and enforced oppressive or unconstitutional restrictions.”

Regina Egan, the University’s chapter of College Democrats’ communications director and LSA junior, said the College Democrats don’t believe the hearing is justified. 

“This hearing is not beneficial to the public’s understanding of how the pandemic was handled, nor is it justified,” Egan said. “This notion that Governor Whitmer is wielding some great, unquestionable power for some indefinite amount of time is absolutely moot. Solicitor General Restuccia put it best: the time limit for Governor Whitmer’s emergency powers at the center of this hearing is the emergency itself.”

Egan emphasized the severe impact of the pandemic on Michigan alongside failed leadership from the White House as the rationale for why Whitmer’s response was acceptable. 

“When we look back on the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan was hit hard –– harder than many other states,” Egan said. “With a critical absence of federal leadership, Governor Gretchen Whitmer made the hard decisions that needed to be made in order to protect the health and safety of Michiganders. College Democrats at the University of Michigan stands with Governor Whitmer.”

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.

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