Wisconsin Supreme Court Strikes Down Dane County Health Department Order to Close Schools

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday sided with private school parents and students in striking down a Dane County order from last August that sought to close all schools to most students to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The court found that because state statute does not specifically allow local health officers to close schools during a public health emergency, Public Health Madison and Dane County director Janel Heinrich overstepped her authority, and it deemed flawed her reliance on a part of state statute that says people in her position can take all “reasonable and necessary” actions to protect public health.

“The power to take measures ‘reasonable and necessary’ cannot be reasonably read as an open-ended grant of authority,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority. “Doing so would swallow the rest of the statute and render it mere surplusage.”

Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented some of the plaintiffs in the case, hailed the decision.

“The order from Public Health Madison and Dane County closing all county schools was illegal, unnecessary and unconstitutional,” he said in a statement. “Even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, the court’s decision provides a critical correction that ought to prevent future abuses of power in an emergency.”