The Governor’s Executive Order shutting down “non-essential” businesses and organizations has been in place since March 24. While Gov. Charlie Baker has modified the order and eased some of his restrictions, that doesn’t legitimize them. His orders are not laws passed by the Legislature and do not apply Massachusetts’ existing laws for handling health crises.

The governor has usurped the role of the Legislature by exercising the police power (the power to regulate the health, safety, and morals of society) in the manner he sees fit. Governor Baker’s purported authority flows from the Civil Defense Act, but as the name implies, the Civil Defense Act exists to protect Massachusetts from invasion, armed insurrection, or storm destruction that could eliminate essential infrastructure providing clean water and shelter. The act does not apply to a pandemic.

As CommonWealth reported recently, “Baker finds himself shoehorning 2020 concerns about social distancing, contact tracers, and non-essential businesses into a 1950 law preoccupied with military threats and nuclear fallout shelters.”

The authority to exercise the police power is the Legislature’s, and the Legislature has already spoken on the issue of pandemic in the Public Health Act. For one thing, the Public Health Act calls for the state Department of Public Health to promulgate appropriate disease-mitigating regulations. The act also grants local boards of health significant authority to protect residents from infectious disease outbreaks—including restricting travel from out-of-state infected areas and quarantines for sick individuals. Don’t bother looking for a provision in the act that allows the governor to close businesses across the state. You won’t find it.

There’s good reason for the Legislature’s policy choice of local control. Massachusetts is a diverse state, and its people have diverse interests and needs. COVID-19 has not impacted Pittsfield the same way it has impacted Monterey—and they’re in the same county and barely 30 miles apart. How different are the health dynamics in Boston from those in Lenox?

According to Baker’s four-phased re-opening plan, some Massachusetts businesses and organizations would have to wait over 100 days, at the earliest, to re-open. Easing restrictions is a welcome change, but his authority to take any action, especially actions premised on civil defense, must always have a clear and firm legal basis. A group of entrepreneurs, pastors, and an educator have filed a complaint in state court seeking a declaration that the governor’s actions are unlawful, for this reason.

COVID-19 is a very real threat to the health and lives of Bay Staters, especially those with underlining health conditions and the elderly. The plaintiffs and their neighbors were asked to stay at home, not go to work, and to put their lives on hold so that Massachusetts could flatten the curve and prevent the virus from overwhelming our emergency healthcare facilities. Appreciating the seriousness of the situation, they gladly did that.

Now the curve has been flattened, but the governor’s executive orders are still in place. The orders continue to push countless businesses and individuals to the brink of insolvency, while infringing on the civil rights of almost everyone in the Commonwealth.

Founding father John Adams insisted that the Massachusetts Constitution include a robust separation of powers, where the executive could not exercise legislative authority, “to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.” If Baker can rule by decree, Massachusetts government has become a government of men—or one man, to be precise.

The plaintiffs believe the governor’s intentions are well-meaning, but they also recognize that the government must return to its prior condition—ruled by laws. If successful, local boards of health will implement strategies befitting their communities to prevent spread of COVID-19, and the Legislature can take up any issue requiring broader applicability to the Commonwealth.

Just as John Adams intended.

Originally published in CommonWealth Magazine on June 1, 2020