Wisconsin is certainly living up to its reputation as an evenly divided cockpit of American cultural and political conflict. Last month, the state’s April 7 primary was held in hellish conditions as conservative legislators and judges insisted on in-person voting that appears to have spread coronavirus infections. The ploy backfired when Jill Karofsky trounced incumbent Judge Daniel Kelly in the principal state electoral contest, for a position on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
But Kelly got at least one last laugh as a lame-duck member of the court when he joined a 4-3 majority that struck down Democratic governor Tony Evers’s stay-at-home order on Wednesday, as the Washington Post reported:
Like most other state governors across the country, Evers issued a stay-at-home order in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But as the April 24 end date approached, Evers’s administration decided to extend the order until May 26.
Shortly after, Republican state lawmakers sued Evers and Andrea Palm, the state health secretary, arguing that such long-term impact on citizens’ lives should be decided in concert with the legislature.
During oral arguments in the case, conservative judges offered some out-there commentary about the very idea of restricting “liberty” in the name of public health. Judge Rebecca Bradley took the cake, as USA Today reported:
“Isn’t it the very definition of tyranny for one person to order people to be imprisoned for going to work among other ordinarily lawful activities?” asked Bradley, who later questioned whether the administration could use the same power to order people into centers akin to the U.S. government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rebecca Dallet said the decision “will undoubtedly go down as one of the most blatant examples of judicial activism in this court’s history.”
Ultimately, the decision held that the state health director’s powers to curtail business operations were subject to legislative review and veto. And in a mystifying detail, the majority did not give Evers and his GOP legislative opponents time to work out a compromise, making its decision effective immediately. Among others, some bar owners took notice, according to the Post:
On Wednesday night in the heart of downtown Platteville, Wis., just hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out the state’s stay-at-home order, Nick’s on 2nd was packed wall to wall, standing room only.
It was sometime after 10 p.m. when “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies came over the sound system and a bartender took out his camera. In a Twitter broadcast, he surveyed the room of maskless patrons crammed together, partying like it was 2019. A few were pounding on the bar to the beat. Some were clapping their hands in the air and some were fist-pumping, a scene so joyous they could have been celebrating the end of the worst pandemic in a century.
This didn’t happen everywhere, since some bar owners chose not to reopen, and the court decision did not overturn local business closure regulations, which were in place in Milwaukee and other localities. Still, the incident showed how this famously crucial state’s legal, political, and cultural differences tend to blend into a witch’s brew of polarization. If there are fresh coronavirus outbreaks in Trump Country precincts where support for business reopening is high, it could change that equation. For the time being, though, some Wisconsin citizens are getting buzzed on their inalienable right to risk illness and death.