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Judge limits California governor’s powers during pandemic

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A judge on Monday preliminarily ordered California Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop issuing directives related to the coronavirus that might interfere with state law.

Sutter County Superior Court Judge Sarah Heckman tentatively ruled that one of the dozens of executive orders Newsom has issued overstepped his authority and was “an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power.”

She more broadly barred him “from exercising any power under the California Emergency Services Act which amends, alters, or changes existing statutory law or makes new statutory law or legislative policy.”

It’s the second time a judge in the county has reached the same conclusion, which runs counter to other state and federal court decisions backing the governor’s emergency powers. An appeals court quickly stayed the earlier order in June.

Heckman’s decision will become final in 10 days unless Newsom’s attorneys can raise new challenges.

Newsom’s administration is evaluating its next steps and strongly disagrees with the order’s specific limitations, said spokesman Jesse Melgar.

The judge found the California Emergency Services Act itself to be constitutional, and made it clear that Newsom “has the authority, necessary in emergencies, to suspend statutes and issue orders to protect Californians,” he said in a statement.

The case centers on a single Newsom executive order in June requiring election officials to establish hundreds of locations statewide where voters can cast ballots. Lawmakers subsequently approved the same requirement, and the judge’s decision will have no effect on Tuesday’s election.

She acted in a lawsuit brought by Republican Assemblymen James Gallagher and Kevin Kiley, who said Newsom, a Democrat, was single-handedly overriding state laws in the name of keeping Californians safe.

“This is a victory for separation of powers,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. Newsom “has continued to create and change state law without public input and without the deliberative process provided by the Legislature.”

Heckman wrote in a nine-page decision that the California Emergency Services Act “does not permit the Governor to amend statutes or make new statutes. The Governor does not have the power or authority to assume the Legislature’s role of creating legislative policy and enactments.”

Newsom used his emergency powers to virtually shut down the state and its economy in the early weeks of the pandemic.

“Nobody disputes that there are actions that should be taken to keep people safe during an emergency,” the lawmakers said. “But that doesn’t mean that we put our Constitution and free society on hold by centralizing all power in the hands of one man.”

Kiley compiled a 28-page list of Newsom’s orders that alter existing state laws, from halting evictions to how public meetings are conducted.

The governor also extended deadlines for businesses to renew licenses, file reports, or pay taxes; delayed consumers’ late fees for paying taxes or renewing drivers licenses; suspended school districts’ deadlines and instructional requirements; suspended medical privacy rules; and allowed grocery stores to hand out free single-use bags.

One order allowed couples to be married by video or teleconference, with marriage licenses and certificates digitally signed and sent by email.

Lawmakers of both political parties have criticized Newsom for not properly consulting with them before issuing sweeping orders and budget decisions.


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