Judge keeps suit against Inslee’s coronavirus order in local court, for now

Clockwise from top left, Chelan County Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera, plaintiffs' attorney Joel Ard with lead plantiff Jose Luis Cuevas, Deputy Attorney General Zach Jones, and Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even in a Zoom hearing June 3.

WENATCHEE — A Chelan County judge won’t send a lawsuit challenging Governor Inslee’s executive orders to be heard in Thurston County … at least not yet.

Judge Kristin Ferrera ruled today that the case brought by 46 local plaintiffs, seeking to overturn the Governor’s public health orders on coronavirus, needs to be heard in Chelan County because the orders affect the county differently from other counties in the state.

Lawyers from the state Attorney General’s office had argued that the Chelan County case — along with similar cases originally filed in three other counties — should be transferred to Thurston County Superior Court, where Olympia is sited and where Inslee signed his sweeping March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

“The reason the court is not doing that is that these harms that are alleged seem particularly unique to Chelan County, because of how these proclamations touch the different counties differently, with the different phases,” Ferrera told the attorneys in an afternoon remote hearing.

But she made no ruling on whether to grant the plaintiffs’ motion to block the emergency proclamations, which were put in place March 23rd and bar certain businesses and gathering places from operation — including restaurants, taverns and indoor church services. Another hearing on the case has yet to be scheduled.

Deputy attorney general Zachary Pekelis Jones said he would ask a higher court to review Ferrera’s decision. Much of the action in Chelan County court would be stayed until that happens.

“Stay Home, Stay Healthy” expired Monday and was replaced by Inslee’s Safe Start Washington proclamations, which set up four-phased restarts for counties based on their progress in battling COVID-19. Chelan County, like its neighbor Douglas County, is still classified in Phase 1, and much of its economic activity remains frozen.

Plaintiffs in the Chelan County case include Wenatchee City Councilmembers Jose Luis Cuevas, Linda Herald and Travis Hornby; Grace City Church pastors Josh McPherson and Adam James; clothing store owner and state Republican committeewoman Marcy Collins; Wenatchee restaurateurs Kevin Smith and Shon Smith; and NCWLIFE host and former state representative Cary Condotta. Their lawsuit claims Inslee’s public health orders have overstepped his authority and needlessly damaged the local economy.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Joel Ard brought four similar cases in four different counties, including Chelan and Douglas, but on Monday withdrew the Douglas County claim and added many of its plaintiffs to the Chelan County lawsuit. Four of the lead plaintiffs — Douglas County Commmissioners Dan Sutton, Marc Straub and Kyle Steinburg and Wenatchee City Councilmember Ruth Esparza — were dropped from the claim, in part because three of them also hold seats on the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health, which oversees local policy in fighting the pandemic.

Ferrera warned the lawsuit needs some clarification before she’d consider the restraining order Ard seeks to rein in the public health orders.

“It’s not even really clear to the court, based on the previous motion, what it is that the plaintiffs are asking,” she said. “It seems that the plaintiffs are asking the court to just lift all restrictions, and I don’t know that there’s anything in the record that demonstrates that that would be something that the court should do.”

She also said the Chelan-Douglas Health District, which is governed by the Board of Health and is not a party to the lawsuit, has not given input on how lifting of the executive orders might affect the impact of the virus.

“That’s concerning to the court. I understand the health district can’t violate any of the orders or statutes, but I still think something more specific from the health district would be expected in any further motions — at the very least about what would happen if the court did issue some form of a temporary restraining order.”

Ferrera also noted that the way judicial proceedings are conducted during the pandemic — via Zoom or other videoconferencing software — means lawyers for the state and the plaintiffs won’t be inconvenienced by cross-state travel.