What are the legal implications of Inslee’s rules on social gatherings?

Mar 11, 2020, 5:24 PM
Gov. Jay Inslee, coronavirus, gatherings, ban...
Gov. Jay Inslee. (Office of WA Governor)
(Office of WA Governor)

Governor Jay Inslee announced restrictions on social gatherings over 250 people across Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties, and there are some legal questions and implications regarding Wednesday’s ban. Former Attorney General Rob McKenna joined the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH to help make legal sense of the new rules.

The governor confirmed he has the power undertake such an action, but does he?

“He does. The state government and local governments have a lot of power, in fact, even more than the federal government to protect public health and safety by taking measures like quarantine and isolation and making them mandatory, if people don’t voluntarily comply,” McKenna said.

“I researched this not long ago. I was interested to see that the real power here is really in the hands of the states and local governments. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) really doesn’t have nearly that much enforcement authority for its own rules, for example.”

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As Jason wondered, let’s say that tomorrow citizens who are upset with this emergency declaration get together in a mass protest that would technically be a social gathering. Could that be broken up because of this rule?

“It probably could be and people there could be cited, I think,” McKenna responded. “Although I haven’t looked to see what the actual penalties would be for noncompliance.”

That said, the announcement from Inslee seemed to downplay the role that law enforcement would play in enforcing this ban. It was confirmed that there won’t be cops sent to check on gatherings, which appears to assume a voluntary compliance.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume that people will abide by it. We’re seeing more public events canceled. … I think you’re going to see a lot of voluntary compliance because no one wants to be accused of not cooperating or creating more risk for the public,” McKenna said.

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“The approach the governor and other officials are taking is a reasonable approach,” he said. “They’re not pushing the boundaries at this point; if they were threatening to arrest people, that would raise more questions.”

As far as the severity of Inslee’s actions, we’re still only talking about social gatherings, we’re not saying you can’t leave your home, but could it get to that point? And would that be legal?

“It’s conceivable, but they would have to have a lot of evidence that it really is required, that that kind of extreme measure is justified by the emergent situation,” McKenna said. “I have a feeling we won’t reach that level. But then again, you see what’s happening in Italy. But even in Italy they’re still allowing people to go out to restaurants until 6 p.m. … So even there they’re not literally shutting people up.”

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What are the legal implications of Inslee’s rules on social gatherings?