Sound Off: Governor holds extraordinary powers in an emergency

  • Friday, April 24, 2020 4:53pm
  • Opinion

As a community, state and nation, we are suffering from the effects of an unprecedented pandemic. We entrust our elected leaders to follow the law when making the difficult and consequential decisions necessary to find our way through this calamity.

By their very nature, all emergency orders interfere with the freedoms we take for granted in normal times. Because our nation is built upon the rule of law, neither citizen nor public official can simply ignore lawful emergency orders, even if they have valid reasons to disagree with the orders.

A handful of officials around the state have asserted Governor Jay Inslee’s emergency orders are illegal, and encourage citizens not to comply with them. This is an irresponsible and dangerous tactic that may inflict unnecessary harm on individuals, and cause legal liability for counties.

The statements and resolutions of those officials are based on a misunderstanding of the law.

Their resolutions — some of which have now been rescinded — have encouraged county residents to demand similar unlawful acts by Island County officials.

Our constitution vests “supreme executive power of this state in the governor.”

The governor is granted extraordinary powers as long as an emergency exists. That is how it must be. During an emergency, our ship of state needs a commander with all the necessary authority to steer us to safety. The governor’s proclamations have the force of law. Counties are prohibited by our constitution from acting “in conflict with state law,” including the governor’s emergency orders.

Some have claimed that the governor’s proclamations are unconstitutional. Many have this belief because they have misread a single state statute. They say that RCW 43.06.220(4) imposes a 30-day limit on all emergency orders. This is simply not true. The 30-day limit only applies to a very narrow set of actions the governor may take.

The 30-day limit does not affect the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders requiring citizen isolation and the temporary closure of non-essential businesses. In instances where the 30-day limit does apply, such as the suspension of certain requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act, the governor has sought and obtained the required consent of the legislative leadership within the 30-day deadline.

These are trying times, and people are right to pay close attention to their elected leaders. Even in emergencies, and perhaps, especially in emergencies, the rule of law must be paramount. But, when a law or action is believed to be unconstitutional, we have granted the judicial branch the exclusive power to decide its fate.

Individuals and local governments undermine the rule of law and our democracy when they claim to take that power into their own hands.

Gregory M. Banks is Island County prosecuting attorney.

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