While criticism of Gov. Phil Murphy’s use of his executive powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has been largely partisan, it serves to focus attention on how extensive those powers are and whether the Legislature should take steps to limit them.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, Murphy has declared and renewed his state of emergency order, continuing to dramatically alter virtually every facet of daily life.
He ordered closures of businesses and schools, banned all manner of social gatherings from weddings and birthday celebrations to funeral services and ordered every New Jerseyan to wear a protective mask when out and about.
He’s since gradually relaxed the restrictions to re-open schools, permit indoor dining and social gatherings subject to limits on attendance.
His authority derives from Article V of the state constitution which states succinctly: “The executive power shall be vested in a governor.”
Those nine words written by the drafters of the 1947 constitution established what is arguably the strongest chief executive of any state in the nation.
Under the state’s Disaster Control Act, the governor may exercise his executive power to meet “an emergency which includes a disaster, any unusual incident resulting from natural or unnatural causes which endangers the health, safety or resources” of the state and its people.
Nearly 200,00 people sickened by the coronavirus and more than 16,000 dead in six months clearly meets the definition of an emergency.
Murphy’s critics insist that he’s stretched his executive authority beyond its legitimate bounds by acting unilaterally and failing to seek legislative sanction for imposing a statewide lockdown.
Ignoring the Legislature, they claim, makes a mockery of the co-equal branch of government system established by the Constitution and is tantamount to a dictatorship.
Murphy’s predecessors have invoked emergency powers during their terms, usually to deal with natural disasters — hurricanes, flooding, severe blizzards, high wind and rain storms — and have ordered closures, stay at home orders, evacuations and stringent travel restrictions.
While these incidents were predictable, providing ample time to prepare for them and most lasting several days, the COVID-19 pandemic struck suddenly and has run amok since March.
It was unprecedented in its impact and severity, placing enormous pressures on the state’s health care system and raising the prospect that hospitals could be overrun and collapse under the strain.
It was an event so overwhelming that responding to it demanded a total commitment of resources, rapid mobilization of medical and law enforcement personnel and, perhaps most importantly, the ability and flexibility to react swiftly — often within mere hours — to confront rapidly changing circumstances.
It was, in short, a crisis unlike any the state has faced in its history.
The Legislature is simply not constructed to react with the speed necessary to meet such a challenge. When pivoting from one response to a different one within the span of a few hours can be crucial, a decision must be reached based on the most up to date medical and scientific data available.
Time is of the essence. The luxury of legislative debate and consideration, committee hearings and deliberations, and voting sessions cannot be indulged without potentially dire consequences.
Most of the 120 members of the Assembly and Senate serve on a part time basis, holding full time employment in the private sector. Summoning a majority to Trenton, even on an emergency basis, would be time consuming, not to mention briefing them all on steps being contemplated by the governor and those in his Administration dealing with the emergency fulltime.
Legislators unhappy with Murphy’s performance are, in most instances, expressing the understandable frustrations of their constituencies, many of whom have suffered severe economic harm brought on by business closures and soaring unemployment.
Demands for an accelerated pace for re-opening the state’s commercial life rose as Murphy resisted moving in that direction, citing the experience in other states whose restrictions were lifted prematurely, only to be struck with a resurgence of the virus and the resulting infections and fatalities.
As the caseload, hospitalizations, transmission rate and deaths continued to decline steadily, Murphy ordered the relaxation of his directives while at the same time warning that he would not hesitate to reimpose them should the pandemic show signs of spreading again.
Several Republican legislators have expressed support for a Constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s emergency declarations to 14 days, presumably forcing him to justify renewing each one.
Much the same purpose could be served through closer collaboration and consultation between the governor’s office and legislative leadership.
It would be wise for the Administration to designate a contact person or persons to maintain rapid communications with legislators regarding steps under consideration and the timing of their implementation.
It would then be the duty of the leadership to advise its members as rapidly as possible, permitting them to raise questions, voice opposition and utilize their district offices to inform their constituencies.
Securing a buy-in from the Legislature and establishing lines of communication from the governor’s office would accomplish a great deal toward overcoming misinformation and misunderstanding.
It also has a potential to pay political dividends by establishing the Legislature as a full and critical partner in meeting and combatting the crisis.
There will continue to be criticisms; it wouldn’t be New Jersey politics if there wasn’t.
There exists, though, an opportunity to place politics secondary, particularly heading into the 2021 election year.
Both sides should seize it.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.