Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is demanding that a county commission in his state retract a resolution defying his statewide stay-at-home order to combat COVID-19.
In a strongly worded letter Wednesday to the Franklin County Commission, Inslee’s counsel dismissed its decision to declare the county “open for business” as illegal and a threat to public health.
The governor’s reaction came after the three-member commission, all Republicans, voted Tuesday to allow businesses in the county to reopen, claiming that the governor’s stay-at-home order was unconstitutional. They echoed the same party line as the local sheriff, who on Monday declared that he wouldn’t enforce the order against churches or businesses.
The commission’s dubious attempt to override the governor was in line with the conservative backlash to the extreme public health measures taken around the country in response to the pandemic. More than 40,000 Americans have died, and the national economy has been brought to its knees.
“During the pandemic, the health of the public is paramount,” Inslee general counsel Kathryn Leathers wrote in the letter obtained by TPM. “As such, by and through this letter, the Governor directs you to immediately retract or rescind the resolution adopted on April 21, 2020, that declares the County to be ‘open for business’ and any relevant guidance that purports to supersede state enforcement authority.”
She added that the motion “knowingly violates” the governor’s order under his emergency powers, thus violating state law.
At a public meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners argued that the governor’s order is unconstitutional overreach.
“By my reading this is day 90 — the governor’s authority ended at day 30,” said Commissioner Brad Peck. “As far as I’m concerned, the county is open and I’d encourage people within the law and within the parameters of their own safety — we’re adults, we can make decisions — to behave accordingly.”
With that, Commissioner Clint Didier made a motion to make the reopening official, saying that the governor’s order had now been “deemed unconstitutional.”
The other two commissioners signed on, though Peck expressed his desire that the motion undergo a legal review.
“Barring evidence from anybody that says we can’t do this, I think we need to step up there and say it’s time,” Peck said.
But, per Inslee’s office, the vote was nothing more than symbolic.
“They do not have the authority to do this,” Tara Lee, Inslee’s communication director, told TPM. “It is illegal.”
At least one commissioner seems ready to challenge that stance.
“We have a constitutional attorney right now and we are formulating a suit against the governor,” Didier told the local NBC affiliate KNDO Tuesday. “Commissioner Peck brought up the fact that beyond 30 days, the governor doesn’t have the ability to extend this emergency proclamation without the legislature’s approval.”
Peck, however, was quick to wash his hands of the litigation.
“I am NOT, nor is Franklin County, part of the litigation announced by Commissioner Didier,” he told TPM on Wednesday.
Didier’s possible legal action may be dead on arrival anyway. The crux of his argument seems to be that the legislature has not given its requisite approval to the governor’s order. In fact, the state House and Senate leaders gave Inslee approval for his extension until May 4.
On the other side of the equation, a spokesperson for state Attorney General Bob Ferguson declined to say if legal action was being considered against the county commissioners.
The commissioners acted hot on the heels of another Franklin County official who also chafed under Inslee’s order.
Sheriff J.D. Raymond published a letter on Facebook Monday declaring that he would not enforce the stay-at-home order in cases where it infringed on freedom of religion or the operation of privately owned businesses.
“Our governor has overstepped his constitutional powers and is trying to control us under the guise of protecting us,” he wrote. “He states that he is protecting us from the current pandemic but is simultaneously creating an economic crisis.”
Washington was one of the first states to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and now has 12,345 cases with 682 dead, per the state’s health department. Franklin County, population 95,222, has had 800 cases and four deaths so far.
Read the letter from Inslee’s lawyer here: