PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A retired R.I. Supreme Court justice expects lawsuits from business owners and others challenging Gov. Gina Raimondo’s COVID-19 executive orders and whether she followed the law as she wielded that power over the last two months.
Robert Flanders, who served on the state’s high court from 1996 to 2004, questioned Raimondo’s “unbridled” use of her orders during the crisis to restrict religious rights, economic liberty and other constitutional freedoms.
Raimondo’s executive orders have determined which types of businesses remained open, how many mourners could attend funerals and the size of non-religious gatherings.
“Loss of their business. Loss of their income. Loss of their rights to travel, to assemble, to worship as they please,” Flanders said. “I can’t imagine there aren’t going to be some lawsuits that arise out of this.”
Flanders, a Republican who ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2018, is one of the authors of an opinion paper released by the R.I. Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.
Under state law, executive orders are allowed in 30-day increments and can be legally renewed by the governor, but the paper emphasizes the end of the statute directs those in power “to act with restraint and moderation and with strict regard to the rights of the people.”
Raimondo said her executive orders have been put together with input from “stakeholders in the community, public health experts and staff members,” and reviewed by legal counsel.
“I never really viewed any of this as a choice. I’m the governor,” Raimondo said. “I have a duty to protect the people of Rhode Island and make the tough decisions.”
One example of whether the 30-day limitation for executive orders was breached involves canceled, iconic summer events, including the folk and jazz festivals that bring a big economic boost to Newport and the state.
Flanders and the other authors of the paper argue while Raimondo did not shut down the festivals and other events with an executive order, “she clearly violated the spirit of the law,” by making “proclamations” about not allowing large crowds, that were more than 30 days away from gathering.
“The Governor may have exceeded her legal authority to issue proclamations extending beyond enumerated time limits,” the paper states. “Was the Governor’s declaration to prohibit mid-to-large-sized public and private events through most of the summer within the scope of her emergency powers?”
The paper also questions the legality of delaying the 2020 Presidential Primary until next month and implementing a mail-ballot-only system.
Another point of contention: where have lawmakers been since the General Assembly has the power to examine and override executive orders?
‘The General Assembly has a role to play and for whatever reason, they’ve gone dark and ceded the floor to the governor,” Flanders said. “And she has taken full advantage of that.”
A spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has not responded to a request for comment.
Raimondo said she does not “pretend everything I do is perfect,” but stood by her use of executive orders during the crisis.
“I understand it’s difficult. I understand different people don’t agree,” Raimondo said. “But I am making the decisions that I think are in the best interest of Rhode Island.”
While Flanders expects lawsuits to pop up in the coming months, Center for Freedom and Prosperity founder and CEO Mike Stenhouse said the decision has not been made on whether the organization will itself seek relief in court.
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