Louisiana Solicitor General Challenges Masking and Vaccine Requirements in COVID-19 Response
Louisiana Solicitor General Liz Murrill argued before a U.S. House panel on Wednesday that state and local officials, including Gov. John Bel Edwards and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, overstepped their legal authority by implementing mask mandates and promoting vaccines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Murrill, who is running for Louisiana Attorney General, testified before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which was established to examine the White House's response to the pandemic. The hearing, titled "Churches vs. Casinos: The Constitution is not Suspended in Times of Crisis," explored various perspectives on the government's measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Murrill accused leaders at the federal, state, and local levels of engaging in irrational decision-making during the pandemic while claiming autocratic power to justify their actions. She criticized the federal bureaucrats for setting an example and providing justifications that influenced similar behavior at the state and local levels, disregarding the law.
The hearing aimed to investigate the steps taken by the United States to combat the spread of COVID-19, which claimed the lives of 1.1 million Americans and overwhelmed hospitals across the country. At the peak of the pandemic, 42 states, with a combined population of 316 million, imposed stay-at-home orders, restricted public gatherings, and closed schools. These measures, classifying businesses as essential or nonessential and imposing other governmental demands, began under the Trump administration and continued under the Biden administration. As the chief lawyer for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is running for governor, Murrill led legal challenges against various pandemic policies in Louisiana, some of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. During her testimony, she highlighted the case of Reverend Tony Spell, who defied Governor Edwards' order to limit church services as a measure to slow the airborne transmission of the virus. Spell faced surveillance and ultimately received six misdemeanor citations.
It took two years for the Louisiana Supreme Court to clear Spell, ruling that Governor Edwards' 2020 order created an executive-created offense by allowing too many people into a church for worship. The governor's legal team argued that he issued the order due to the lack of clear guidance from the courts on his responsibilities during health crises.
Another witness at the hearing was Micah J. Schwartzman, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law specializing in religious freedom. Schwartzman stated that mandates during emergencies should be "neutral and generally applicable" based on the principles established by late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. This means that the government cannot target specific groups but can broadly apply restrictions to all groups.
During the hearing, Democratic and Republican members engaged in heated exchanges. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia raised concerns about the increase in suicides, particularly among teenagers, during the shutdown and asked Schwartzman if he believed teenagers should commit suicide. Representative Robert J. Garcia of California then displayed quotes from Greene, including statements about Muslims and Jewish bankers, while the committee's ranking Democrat, Representative Raul Ruiz, tried to shift the focus towards analyzing the actions taken by the Trump and Biden administrations in vaccine development, supply chain management, and distribution.
Representative Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, the committee's chair, acknowledged inconsistencies in the restrictions imposed on different businesses. He questioned whether tax collections influenced the decision to allow casinos to reopen while prohibiting houses of worship from holding services for an extended period. Wenstrup emphasized the need to consider the effects of lockdowns and other impacts on public health.
Murrill urged the committee to conduct a thorough evaluation of the COVID-19 pandemic and its handling, emphasizing the importance of establishing clear boundaries through legislation at both the state and federal levels. She also advocated for providing meaningful remedies to individuals who have fought legal battles against unconstitutional mandates at great personal expense.