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Connecticut Supreme Court Opinion Details Decision on Lamont’s Emergency Powers

  • Connecticut Supreme Court releases full opinion on decision upholding Governor Ned Lamont’s authority to close bars during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Justices unanimously uphold constitutionality of Connecticut’s emergency powers laws and Lamont’s use of them
  • Opinion suggests that legislature could make revisions to provide greater oversight of the executive branch during emergencies, and several lawmakers have proposed bills along these lines

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

The Connecticut Supreme Court has released a detailed opinion on its previous decision upholding Governor Ned Lamont’s decision to shutter bars during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the state’s emergency powers laws and Lamont’s use of them have been constitutional. However, the court also hinted that the legislature could modify the laws in its current session if it sees fit, and Connecticut lawmakers have already issued several such proposals.

The 30-page opinion in Casey v. Lamont expands on a New Year’s Eve ruling where the court unanimously upheld Lamont’s authority to issue business restrictions during the state of emergency. Kristine Casey, owner of Casey’s Irish Pub in Milford, filed the challenge after state restrictions forced her to close the business on March 16, 2020. Casey said she had not been able to find relief under permitted business practices such as takeout or curbside pickup and suffered major financial losses.

The opinion affirmed the constitutionality of Connecticut’s two emergency powers laws as well as Lamont’s actions under them. It declared that Lamont had been acting within the authority given him under the laws and that it was not up to the court to question his policy decisions.

The justices rejected the argument that the pandemic did not justify an emergency declaration because disease was not listed as a qualifying cause, noting how the laws gave examples of potential emergencies but did not limit them to only these situations. The opinion also declared that it “would be absurd for the statutory scheme to be interpreted such that the governor could declare a civil preparedness emergency for an event such as a snowstorm but not for the worst pandemic that has impacted the state in more than one century.”

The opinion cited previous cases upholding a temporary increase in executive power during emergencies, since this branch is able to respond more quickly than the legislature. It also noted how there has been some legislative oversight of Lamont’s powers, as a legislative committee affirmed their invocation and subsequent extensions.

Lamont declared a public health and civil preparedness emergency on March 10, 2020. A 10-member legislative committee affirmed the decision, and Lamont’s powers were extended on two occasions. They are currently set to expire on April 20, although the Connecticut House of Representatives has passed a bill that would extend them to May 20.

Several other legal challenges charging Lamont with exceeding the authority of his office have also been dismissed.

Lamont previously considered permitting bars to operate under Phase 3 of Connecticut’s reopening plan, but decided against it after saying bars had been associated with significant increases in COVID-19 infections. The state proceeded to Phase 3 only briefly before a new surge of infections prompted renewed restrictions. Lamont lifted most business capacity restrictions on March 19, but has maintained a closure of drinking establishments that don’t serve meals.

The Connecticut Supreme Court says the emergency powers laws provide “admittedly broad statutory and constitutional authority,” and previously said that Casey’s suit raises “important questions regarding the governor’s authority in a pandemic.” The justices said the Connecticut General Assembly could choose to take action during the current session or a future one to include provisions for greater legislative oversight of the governor’s authority during emergencies.

Lawmakers have proposed a slew of bills to do just that. They include bills that would limit emergency powers renewals to one month, require the full legislature to approve such renewals, exclude pandemics from the definition of a serious disaster, and require the governor to make a good faith effort to provide five days’ notice before any emergency declaration that involves business restrictions.

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