JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Since Gov. Tate Reeves began issuing executive orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic six months ago, staunch social media critics have repeatedly called the orders “suggestions” and downplayed their legality, expressing concerns about constitutional violations, and called the governor a tyrant.
A 3 On Your Side analysis of Mississippi law shows Reeves is authorized by statute to make such orders during a declared emergency.
Furthermore, a law can take a variety of forms, according to Mississippi College School of Law Professor Matt Steffey, including Reeves’ executive orders.
“Mostly, it takes statutory forms if it comes out of the Legislature, [as] regulations or orders if it comes out of an executive branch like the governor, and [as] judicial decisions and orders if it comes out of a court,” Steffey said. “If a court orders you not to come within 500 feet of your soon-to-be-ex-spouse, even though the Legislature didn’t pass that in the form of a statute, I assure you, it’s law.”
Section 33-15-11 authorizes the governor to be able to take action during natural disasters or declared emergencies.
It also authorizes the governor to give directions to law enforcement officers and local or state boards of health to make others comply with those orders, a point Reeves mentioned during an August 25 COVID-19 briefing.
“There’s no question that the emergency powers that the previous legislature, previous governor signed, I believe 40 years ago, gives these executive orders the force of law without question,” Reeves said. “And by the way, the vast majority of Mississippians are law-abiding citizens and they want to follow the law.”
Many who disagree with Reeves have become quite vocal on social media in recent weeks, with the loudest voice belonging to Robert Foster, the man who lost to Reeves in the Republican primary for governor last year.
While Steffey said Reeves is authorized by statute to be able to issue these orders because the coronavirus pandemic would be considered a declared emergency, Foster disagrees.
“There is no state of emergency with the #ElectionFlu. There just isn’t. So if there is no state of emergency, how does the Governor or any Mayor have the constitutional authority to continue legally issuing mandates?” Foster wrote in a Facebook post September 1. “They don’t. They are not within the legal bounds of the state constitution. In other words, our Governor (sic) and several Mayors (sic) are breaking the law.”
Foster’s posts have generated thousands of comments -- mostly support -- from people throughout Mississippi.
He and others have repeatedly encouraged people to defy the executive order, ending many posts with the hashtag “MaskOffMS.”
“COVID-19 is clearly a declared emergency, much the same way hurricanes are,” Steffey said. “That triggers additional authority in the governor, and the reason the Legislature does that is the Legislature is a multi-body entity that can’t readily get things done. Its job is to decide basic policy.”
Steffey argues the governor’s executive orders are law because Reeves is authorized by statute to act during these events, though enforcing those orders can become problematic.
Reeves talked about that last week.
“Enforcement of all these executive orders is exceptionally challenging. We know that. The best enforcement mechanism we have is for the people of Mississippi to enforce it themselves,” Reeves said.
A 3 On Your Side investigation last month revealed three different cities in the metro -- Madison, Clinton and Ridgeland -- hadn’t issued any citations for those failing to wear masks.
The penalties for violating Reeves’ mask mandate -- which ends September 14 -- could include six months in jail and a $500 fine.
“The existence of penalties isn’t enough to stop the behavior in the same way it is for many other things. The speed limit doesn’t work perfectly but it does alter behavior,” Steffey said. “What we hope the mask order is more like a speed limit in the same way we hope drivers don’t go up and down 55 going ‘what can I get away with’ as opposed to what’s safe?”
Some Mississippians have claimed on Facebook that their constitutional rights have been violated by being forced to wear masks.
Steffey said fundamental rights can be intruded upon for a compelling reason if the remedy -- wearing masks, in this case -- is narrowly tailored.
The compelling reason here, he said, would be stopping a pandemic, though that process has been hampered by misinformation.
Steffey said his frustrations only come from people who believe those claims.
“It would be ’nails on a chalkboard’ if I turned to Facebook for legal advice,” Steffey said.