State Supreme Court Rules Counties Can Issue Public Health Orders and Enforce Them without Permission from Local Elected Officials

Local health officials have the authority to issue public health orders and issue fines to enforce them without permission from local elected officials, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The ruling stemmed from a case that was brought by two families of young athletes and a Dane County dance studio that was accused of being overcapacity in December 2020. At the time, there was a prohibition on indoor gatherings of any size following a fall surge in COVID-19 cases that year. They filed a lawsuit against Dane County, the local health department and Dane County’s health director Janel Heinrich that challenged the health order.

Dane County ruled against the plaintiffs, who petitioned to bypass the court of appeals. The Wisconsin Supreme Court granted their request and agreed to hear the case.

“Heinrich responded to the appearance of the communicable COVID-19 disease in her territory by issuing a series of orders from May 2020 until March 2022 that implemented measures to prevent, suppress, and control the disease’s spread,” Justice Jill Karofsky wrote for the majority. “She did so pursuant to her authority under state law.”

Karofsky went on to say that the law allows local health officers to “promptly take all measures necessary” to respond to communicable diseases like COVID-19.