Authority vs. Power: The Political Fights Defining The Coronavirus Pandemic

Apr 22, 2020

Since Gov. Tony Evers announced he would be extending the safer-at-home order, there’s been pushback. There have been small-scale protests in cities like Brookfield and Madison. Some Wisconsin sheriffs have come out in opposition to the order. And this week the Republican-led Legislature filed legal action against the order.

At the heart of this fight, like the fight over the April 7 election, are seemingly simple questions: Who has the power to do what? Who’s in charge?

It might sound simple, but Philip Rocco says there isn’t a simple answer. Rocco is an assistant professor at Marquette University, where he teaches courses on American politics and the policymaking process. When it comes to the governor's safer-at-home order, Rocco says the state constitution is on his side — but that may not matter. 

"Authority and power are two different things. Just because the constitution gives the governor the power to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the politics of the scenario will allow that to be the final action," he explains.

"Authority and power are two different things. Just because the constitution gives the governor the power to do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the politics of the scenario will allow that to be the final action."

In this case, Rocco says state Republicans lack the legal authority they want over this situation, which is why they're seeking support from the judicial system. 

"I think what they're trying to do here is create a set of scenarios that changes the political dynamic, that actually puts them in a better position politically. One, by sort of taking the decision to a venue which they know has been very friendly to them in the past — [the Wisconsin Supreme Court]," says Rocco. 

"Additionally, I think that Republicans are trying to change the dynamics of hearts and minds. There have been these protests in Madison, for example, and they really haven't included that many people. It doesn't really represent ... anything more than a very, very small sliver of public opinion. However, the hope is that, I think, by getting a lot of coverage of those people they sort of amplify the idea that this is really a divisive, partisan issue."

"[Sheriffs] don't have the authority to be the interpreter of the constitution or the state statutes, they have to follow what the letter of the law is."

Rocco points out that a recent Marquette Law School poll found that 86% of Wisconsinites believe it was appropriate for Evers to close businesses, schools, and limit public gatherings. And although some sheriffs have signaled they don't approve of the governor extending the order, Rocco points out that most haven't said they won't enforce it and that it's ultimately not within their power to interpret the order. 

"They don't have the authority to be the interpreter of the constitution or the state statutes, they have to follow what the letter of the law is," he explains. 

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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