Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman joined Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier and some small-business owners in suing Gov. Jay Inslee in federal court Friday, contending the governor’s stay-home order to prevent spread of the coronavirus has imposed “unacceptable tyranny.”
The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
In a news conference in front of the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Eyman and other plaintiffs railed against Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order as overstepping his authority and argued that state businesses and schools should be reopened.
Didier said Washingtonians should be allowed to mingle again, arguing spreading the disease would be a positive development and build immunity. “We can take care of this virus by letting the people catch it,” he said.
A farmer and former professional football player, Didier was elected to the Franklin County Commission in 2018. He previously had run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, state lands commissioner and twice for the U.S. House in Washington’s 4th Congressional District. In the lawsuit, Didier was identified as chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party.
Other plaintiffs in the case include owners of a pizza restaurant, a beauty salon and an auto dealership, as well as LaWanda Hatch, a Franklin County wedding planner who says she’s now unable to book any events. “We have been put in a horrible position… this is killing people,” said Hatch, who is also a member of the Washington State Republican Party’s state committee.
Another plaintiff, Lisa Thomas, is a registered nurse from Richland whose online fundraiser in support of the lawsuit had raised nearly $27,000 from more than 500 donors as of Friday morning. She said Inslee’s order had interfered with her right to buy guns and unfairly closed her children’s schools. Thomas said she won’t go along with any state program for mandatory vaccines, or for coronavirus testing or contact tracing of infections. “This is medical tyranny,” she said.
Stephen Pidgeon, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the law does not allow Inslee to quarantine people who aren’t sick, nor to determine which jobs are “essential” and “nonessential,” calling that the “greatest grievance” outlined in the case. The 16-page complaint he filed asks for damages of at least $100,000 and for court orders invalidating Inslee’s restrictions and prohibiting similar ones.
Pidgeon, a former candidate for state attorney general, has worked on a variety of conservative legal causes, including challenges to same-sex marriage and to Sound Transit’s car tab fees. He also has spread false “birther” claims about former President Barack Obama, who he claimed planned to install an “Islamic Caliphate” in the U.S. if reelected in 2012.
In a recent blog post, Pidgeon suggested the coronavirus pandemic was part of God’s wrath against sin, and tied it to “wickedness” of laws in Washington, such as a sex-education bill passed this year by the state Legislature. “Do not say I have not warned this nation. But they have ears which cannot hear and eyes which cannot see. They will stiffen their necks and shake their fists at their maker, denying his power and authority, while refusing to take responsibility for the deaths they have brought on this earth through their wickedness,” he wrote.
Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order March 23, shutting down most workplaces and barring gatherings for social, spiritual and recreational purposes. The governor has slowly started to loosen some restrictions, allowing some construction to resume, as well as some non-urgent medical procedures. He also announced the reopening of golf courses, state parks and recreational fishing as of next week. But on Friday, Inslee extended the overall order through May 31.
Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Inslee’s office, said in an email that counsel had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and offered no other comment.
Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, criticized comments by Didier and other Republican leaders in recent days as “dangerous” and against the advice of health experts. “The ‘protests’ today and this lawsuit are nothing more than partisan publicity stunts that needlessly threaten the progress we have all made together. If there are any responsible Republican legislative leaders left in Olympia, they must speak out against these alarming comments from members of their party,” she said in a statement.
The lawsuit is the second legal challenge by Republican politicians to Inslee’s stay-home order.
Joshua Freed, a Republican candidate for governor, sued Inslee last month in federal court, alleging the stay-home order’s inclusion of a ban on religious gatherings violates the First Amendment. Freed is represented by attorneys for the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based nonprofit that specializes in religious freedom cases. The group also represented former Bremerton High School Football coach Joe Kennedy, the “praying coach” who gained national attention five years ago for challenging the school for banning him from praying on the 50-yard line after games. A federal judge in March dismissed Kennedy’s lawsuit.
A hearing on the Freed lawsuit’s request for a temporary restraining order halting the religious-gathering ban is set for May 8.
Washington has had more than 14,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 800 deaths as of April 29, according to the latest numbers tracked by the state Department of Health. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment ranks have surged to include more than 1 in 5 workers.
The backlash by conservatives against stay-home orders has included similar lawsuits in other states, as well as coordinated protests at state capitols, including some encouraged by President Donald Trump against Democratic governors.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr has signaled the Justice Department will be on the lookout for states that overreach with their coronavirus restrictions. In an April 27 memo to all U.S. Attorneys, he wrote that the Justice Department did not want “to unduly interfere” in efforts by state and local officials to protect the public. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected,” he wrote.
Eyman wrote a letter to Barr, asking him to support the lawsuit against Inslee. A spokeswoman for Brian Moran, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, did not respond to questions about whether he might take action against any of Washington state’s restrictions.