Ohio's COVID-19 lockdown is illegal, a state judge ruled today, because it exceeds the powers granted by the statute under which it was imposed. Responding to a May 8 lawsuit filed by the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law on behalf of 35 gyms, Lake County Court of Common Pleas Judge Eugene Lucci enjoined Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton from penalizing the plaintiffs or similar businesses for violating the lockdown, provided "they operate in compliance with all applicable safety regulations."
In issuing her business closure and stay-at-home orders, Acton relied on a statute that gives her department "ultimate authority in matters of quarantine and isolation." Lucci concluded that Ohio's lockdown does not meet the legal requirements for "isolation," which is defined as "the separation of an infected individual from others during the period of disease communicability," or a "quarantine," which is defined as "the restriction of the movements or activities of a well individual or animal who has been exposed to a communicable disease during the period of communicability of that disease." A quarantine is supposed to last only as long as "the usual incubation period of the disease"—two to 14 days, in the case of COVID-19.
By contrast, Lucci writes, "The director has quarantined the entire people of the state of Ohio, for much more than 14 days. The director has no statutory authority to close all businesses, including the plaintiffs' gyms, which she deems non-essential for a period of two months. She has acted in an impermissibly arbitrary, unreasonable, and oppressive manner and without any procedural safeguards."
Gov. Mike DeWine already planned to let gyms and fitness centers reopen next Tuesday, subject to social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions. But Lucci's injunction adds to the smattering of court decisions recognizing that state officials must comply with the law even when they are responding to a public health emergency.
In this case, Acton purported to criminalize a wide range of previously legal conduct, threatening violators with a $750 fine and up to 90 days in jail. But those misdemeanor penalties are legally authorized only for people who violate orders that fit within the health department's statutory powers. Lucci concluded that Acton's orders did not.
"The general public would be harmed if an injunction was not granted," Lucci writes. "There would be a diminishment of public morale, and a feeling that one unelected individual could exercise such unfettered power to force everyone to obey impermissibly oppressive, vague, arbitrary, and unreasonable rules that the director devised and revised, and modified and reversed, whenever and as she pleases, without any legislative guidance. The public would be left with feelings that their government is not accountable to them."
In addition to the injunction, the plaintiffs are seeking compensation for lost income and legal costs.
"Constitutions are written to prevent governments from arbitrarily interfering in citizens' lives and businesses," 1851 Center Executive Director Maurice Thompson said in response to the ruling. "On that front, the call to action is clear: The governor and health director may no longer impose their own closures and regulations and write their own criminal penalties to enforce those regulations and closures. We remain available to serve those who are caught in the state's tangled web of unlawful orders."
While Lucci focused on the statutory provision addressing quarantines, Case Western Reserve law professor Jonathan Adler suggests in a Volokh Conspiracy post that another, more general provision of the law, allowing "special or standing orders or rules…for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases," could be read to authorize the lockdown. Replying by email, Thompson says that interpretation would improperly delegate legislative powers to the executive branch. "That section is vague, broad, and unconfined," he writes. "It fails to place guardrails on administrative authority, especially when [the law] authorizes imposition of criminal penalties for any disobedience of 'any order' made pursuant thereto, without more."
[This post has been updated with additional comments from Adler and Thompson.]