Editorial: Coronavirus or not, officials don't have power to make their own laws

Editorial: Coronavirus or not, officials don't have power to make their own laws

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The Latest: Illinois scrambles to find new polling places

Lisette Venegas votes inside an improvised polling place at a laundromat Tuesday in Chicago. Voters across the state participated in primary elections as concerns about the coronavirus loomed large.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

From primary-election postponement to suspending local parking enforcement and altering access to public meetings, public officials are assuming authority to impose new rules and procedures in the name of protecting public health. We understand that these are challenging times requiring everyone to show flexibility and compassion. But that doesn’t give elected officials authority to take the law into their own hands.

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine ignored a court ruling and unilaterally decided to postpone Tuesday’s presidential primaries in his swing state, which probably won’t affect the Republican vote but could have a big effect on a hotly contested Democratic race. On what authority did DeWine make this democracy-altering decision?

An Ohio state judge had ruled Monday that the state could not push back the vote to June 2, as the state sought. But DeWine proceeded anyway, citing the danger to poll workers of coronavirus exposure. Three other states, Arizona, Illinois and Florida, held their primaries as scheduled Tuesday even though Florida and Illinois rank among the top 10 states for coronavirus infections.

DeWine’s precedent matters. In less than eight months, national elections will determine the next White House occupant. Nobody knows how long this health crisis will endure, but under no circumstances can the American people allow the incumbent president to defy the courts and assume powers to alter the election schedule. The potential for abuse under President Donald Trump is simply too high.

The St. Louis County Election Board requested postponement of the April 7 election to Aug. 4, but a three-judge appeals court correctly ruled that no legislative authority existed to authorize such a move. Of course poll workers’ and voters’ safety must be a priority. But preserving democracy must also figure in the equation.

Local governing councils and boards are faced with serious challenges because of limitations on the number of people who may attend meetings. Missouri’s Sunshine Law nevertheless requires public access. It’s the governing bodies’ obligation to abide by the law, especially when major decisions on ordinances, spending decisions and, say, the hiring of a new police chief are on the table. The Legislature is currently debating a bill to curtail Sunshine Law protections, which justifiably has met with strong objections from transparency advocates.

St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones announced Monday she was suspending parking enforcement and fine collection through April 15. Regardless of the motive, where was her legal authority to make this unilateral declaration? Her spokesman, Benjamin Singer, was unable to cite a specific statute but asserted that “prosecutors, judges, police, etc. exercise discretion within their authority.” Jones, he added, “has discretion, and these are extraordinary circumstances.”

Judges, police, mayors and, yes, even treasurers are bound by the laws as written. They might have the best of intentions, but the coronavirus outbreak is not a license for officials to do as they please.

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