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Split decision in COVID-19 rulings: Pritzker beats GOP in federal case but loses in downstate county challenge

In the downstate suit, state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, and his attorneys fought hard to keep it in state court. And a Clay County judge ruled in favor of the legislator, according to the governor’s office. The ruling will be appealed.

State Rep. Darren Bailey, left, at the state Capitol in Springfield earlier this year; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, at the Thompson Center in March.
State Rep. Darren Bailey, left, at the state Capitol in Springfield earlier this year; Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, at the Thompson Center in March.
From Facebook; Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times file.

A downstate judge has ruled in favor of a Republican legislator in his lawsuit against Gov. J.B. Pritzker over whether the Democratic governor exceeded his legal authority in issuing a stay-at-home order in March to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just hours earlier, Pritzker notched a win in federal court against the Illinois Republican Party, which sued the governor claiming he violated the GOP’s constitutional rights to assemble during the coronavirus outbreak.

In the downstate lawsuit, state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, and his attorneys fought hard to keep it in state court. And Clay County Judge Michael McHaney ruled in favor of the legislator. The ruling will be appealed.

According to the order, the judge ruled that the 30-days of emergency powers provided under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act lapsed on April 8 and any executive orders in effect after that date relating to COVID-19 are void.

It also grants Bailey’s request that his complaint “be a representative action and apply to all citizens of the State of Illinois.” But according to the governor’s office, that provision cannot apply statewide since other circuits have ruled the opposite, and those rulings are just as valid.

The judge ruled that neither the state constitution nor the emergency management act allows Pritzker “to restrict a citizen’s movement or activities and/or forcibly close business premises.”

Pritzker spokesman Jason Rubin said in a statement that the governor “will continue to prioritize Illinoisans’ health and safety first, and the people of Illinois have taken extraordinary care to follow health experts’ advice, which is why our state has the lowest positivity rate in the Midwest.”

“While this one county circuit court has gone a different direction from all of the other cases, the administration will ultimately seek to appeal this ruling, and the Governor will continue to urge the people of Illinois to exercise constant vigilance and keep doing what has worked: wash your hands, watch your distance and wear your face covering,” Rubin said in a statement.

Bailey in a tweet shortly after the order was given wrote, “Illinois is Open! Live Responsible!”

Pritzker’s stay-at-home order survived a religious challenge twice in federal court in May. The only rebuke the Democratic governor has received is in Clay County, where McHaney has made his opposition to Pritzker’s executive orders clear. During one hearing, McHaney said “the Bill of Rights is being shredded” by Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

That is in part why Pritzker’s lawyers have been moving lawsuits challenging his stay-at-home order out of state courts and into federal court.

McHaney is the same judge who in May entered a temporary restraining order that freed Bailey — but no one else — from Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. That temporary restraining order has since been lifted, at Bailey’s request.

Bailey — who was tossed from one day of a legislative special session in Springfield in May after refusing to wear a mask — then filed a revised complaint in the case.

The other ruling issued Thursday involved the Illinois Republican Party suit, filed in mid-June. It argued that while religious groups and protesters have been allowed to gather in groups of more than 10 under Pritzker’s disaster declaration, political groups were not allowed to share the same freedoms — which they said are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

But the judge rejected that argument.

“Granting Plaintiffs the relief they seek would pose serious risks to public health,” U.S. District Court Judge Sara L. Ellis wrote in an opinion. “Plaintiffs contend that in-person speech is most effective, and their communications are hampered by gathering limits. But the current state of our nation demands that we sacrifice the benefits of in-person interactions for the greater good. Enjoining the Order would risk infections amongst members of the Illinois Republican Party and its regional affiliates, as well as their families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.”

Ellis wrote that the “risks are too great” for the political organization to be able to gather with no limits. She also wrote that the GOP can do phone banking, virtual strategy meetings and meet in groups of 50 or less. The state last Friday entered into Phase 4 of Pritzker’s reopening plan which allowed for a larger capacity for gatherings.

Ellis, too, said allowing the political party to gather without limits “would open the floodgates to challenges from other groups that find in-person gatherings most effective.”

“It would also require that the Court turn a blind eye to the increase in infections across a high majority of states, which as of July 1, 2020 includes Illinois,” Ellis wrote.

The Democratic governor in late April extended a COVID-19 executive order that allows for religious groups to gather in accordance with safety guidelines. It included freedom of religion as an “essential activity.” But all gatherings over 10 were still not advised. At one point, CDC guidelines to stem the spread of COVID-19 advised against gatherings of more than 10 people.

Pritzker has attended several large events since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and has defended those appearances by saying he was exercising his First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit cites one of those Pritzker appearances.

But despite the GOP’s arguments, Ellis wrote in her opinion that “the Constitution does not accord a political party the same express protections as it provides to religion.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, which also includes the Will County Republican Central Committee, the Schaumburg Township Republican Organization and the Northwest Side GOP Club, have already filed a motion in federal court to appeal the ruling.