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Statement from Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney Steven D. Weinhoeft on Federal Court’s Decision that Legal Challenge to Illinois Governor’s Sweeping COVID-19 Orders Belongs in State Court

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois Steven D. Weinhoeft issued the following statement on yesterday’s ruling, agreeing with the Justice Department, that a legal challenge to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 orders belongs in Illinois state court rather than federal court:

“It is now up to the Illinois courts to decide if Governor Pritzker’s continuing COVID-19 executive orders are lawful.  These sweeping proclamations affect more than 12.5 million Americans, restrict their freedom to associate, practice their faith, and engage in commerce.  And, these orders appear to reach far beyond the scope of the 30-day emergency authority granted to the governor under Illinois law.

The United States Constitution requires that every state in this nation establish and maintain a Republican Form of Government.  This means that governors cannot restrict our freedom by issuing unlawful edicts. 

Governors do not rule us.  We are self-governing, and governors answer to the people through the democratic process.  For that reason, all public officials, including governors, must comply with the law.  Even in the face of a pandemic, states must follow their own laws and make these sensitive policy choices in a manner responsive to the people.  Doing so, both respects and serves the goals of our broader federal structure. 

The Department of Justice remains committed to defending the rule of law and the American people at all times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Background

On May 22, 2020, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in an Illinois federal court in support of a lawsuit filed by Illinois state representative Darren Bailey challenging certain actions of Governor J.B. Pritzker in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In its statement of interest, the United States explained that this dispute belongs in Illinois state court, and that Representative Bailey has raised substantial questions as to whether the governor’s current response to COVID-19 is lawful. 

Yesterday, the Illinois federal court agreed with the Department of Justice that the dispute belongs in state court, ruling that “in the interest of federalism, the court finds that the amended complaint does not give rise to federal jurisdiction and that this action is best committed to the courts of the State of Illinois for further consideration.” 

The statement of interest was part of Attorney General William P. Barr’s April 27, 2020 initiative directing Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor of Illinois has, for the past several months, sought to rely on authority under the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act to impose sweeping limitations on nearly all aspects of life for citizens of Illinois.  According to the lawsuit, the governor’s actions are not authorized by state law, as they extend beyond the 30-day time period imposed by the Illinois legislature for the governor’s exercise of emergency powers granted under the act. 

Representative Bailey brought his case in Illinois state court and elected only to assert state law claims.  In May, the presiding state court judge ordered Bailey to file his motion for summary judgment and instructed the governor to respond to it.  Instead of responding to Bailey’s motion for summary judgment, on May 21, the governor removed the case to federal district court. 

On June 29, the federal district court remanded the case to the circuit court for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, Clay Court, Illinois.

The federal case is Bailey v. Pritzker, No. 3:20-cv-474.

The department’s previous statement of interest in this case can be found here:  https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1278636/download.

The department’s press release on its previous statement of interest in this case can be found here:  https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-files-statement-interest-challenging-legality-illinois-governors-sweeping.

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