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U.S. judge dismisses challenge to Hogan’s COVID-19 orders

The Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse in Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

The Edward A. Garmatz United States Courthouse in Baltimore. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a constitutional challenge to Gov. Larry Hogan’s safer at home orders, calling the governor’s directives a valid effort to achieve Maryland’s significant goal of protecting the public from the deadly COVID-19 virus.

With her decision, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected claims from business owners, clergy and three Republican state delegates that Hogan’s orders violate their constitutional rights to assemble in large groups and hold religious services as they deem appropriate. Blake’s ruling made permanent her May decision denying the challengers’ request for an order temporarily blocking Hogan’s orders pending a final court decision.

Blake, who sits in the federal courthouse in Baltimore, cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1905 ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that the government, when faced with a public health crisis, has a heightened “right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease.”

Jacobson holds that it is not the role of the judiciary to second-guess policy choices favoring one reasonable method of preventing the spread of a disease over another, which is precisely what the plaintiffs request this court to do,” Blake wrote in her 11-page memorandum opinion.

“Reasonable people, including informed government and public health officials, may debate whether the governor’s orders at any moment go too far, or not far enough, in protecting the public from this deadly pandemic,” Blake added. “But, based on the allegations in plaintiffs’ amended complaint, the court cannot conclude that Governor Hogan’s measures are arbitrary or unreasonable, or that they plainly violate any of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. The court, therefore, must be cautious not to usurp the functions of another branch of government in deciding how best to protect public health.”

Hogan’s office said in a statement that “we appreciate Judge Blake recognizing that the governor’s orders are reasonable and constitutional.”

The governor “will continue to take whatever action is necessary to save lives and protect public health,” the statement read.

Those challenging Hogan’s orders included Dels. Daniel L. Cox, R-Frederick and Carroll and the plaintiffs’ lead attorney; Warren E. Miller, R-Howard and Carroll; and Neil Parrott, R-Washington; the ad hoc group Reopen Maryland LLC, which has rallied in Annapolis against Hogan’s directives; and a group of pastors.

Cox did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment on Blake’s decision and any plans to appeal.

Blake’s ruling came one day after Hogan imposed sharper restrictions on bars, restaurants, places of worship, shops and other retail business effective at 5 p.m. Friday amid a resurgence of the coronavirus.

The restrictions require bars and restaurants to close to indoor seating at 10 p.m. Hogan’s new order also reinstates lower capacity limits on stores, houses of worship and other establishments including bowling alleys, skating rinks, bingo halls and gyms to 50%.

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