In March 2020 the Governor of Minnesota declared a peacetime emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic under the Minnesota Emergency Management Act, according to which the Governor may declare a peacetime emergency “only when an act of nature, a technological failure or malfunction, a terrorist incident, an industrial accident, a hazardous materials accident, or a civil disturbance endangers life and property and local government resources are inadequate to handle the situation”.

In this context, the Governor issued a number of COVID-related executive orders, including an order enacted in July 2020 requiring people in Minnesota to wear face masks in most indoor public places.

Shortly after the enactment of the mask mandate, a number of Minnesota residents, businesses and churches filed suit alleging that the executive order exceeded the Governor’s authority under the Emergency Act and was unconstitutional on several other grounds. They also raised an issue about the general scope of the Governor’s authority under the Emergency Act, alleging that the statute did not authorize the Governor to invoke emergency powers for public health purposes.

The district court dismissed the case upholding respondents’ motion that plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. The latter filed an appeal against the first instance judgment but, while the appeal was pending, the peacetime emergency and the mandate ended. On this basis, the appeal court declared that the appeal was moot.

By decision of 8 February 2023, the Supreme Court of Minnesota partly reversed the decision issued by the appellate judge. Namely, it acknowledged that plaintiffs had not shown a reasonable expectation that they will be subjected to state-wide face-covering mandates in the future and therefore upheld the judgment’s findings that plaintiffs’ claims alleging that the mandate violated the Constitution, and the Emergency Management Act were moot. However, it found that “the legal question of whether the above statute authorizes a peacetime emergency for a public health emergency such as the covid-19 pandemic was functionally justiciable and an important issue of statewide significance” and that the appellate judge should not have declared such point of the appeal as moot. In fact, while the Governor had not instituted another mask mandate or peacetime emergency in response to covid, he still maintained that he retained that power. The Court thus considered that the underlying legal issue – that of the scope of the Governor’s power under the Emergency Management Act – was important and should be decided immediately “so that any lack of clarity can be settled before it is necessary for a governor to invoke the Act again”. Accordingly, the Court reversed the court of appeals’ mootness decision as to the latter issue and remanded the case to the court of appeals for further consideration on the merits.

Reference: Gildea, C.J. et al. v. Tim Walz et al., Supreme Court of Minnesota, 8 February 2023.

Full text of the decision available at webservices.courthousenews.com en