A now-famous Michigan barber is taking his case to cut hair during the coronavirus pandemic to the state Supreme Court, as the Justice Department weighs in on the side of other businesses suing against the strict COVID-19 lockdowns there.
Small businesses and Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been at odds for weeks over some of the most severe economic restrictions any state has imposed since the coronavirus pandemic swept across the U.S. this winter.
She began relaxing those restrictions this week.
The clashes led to peaceful protests in Lansing, one of which, Operation Haircut last week, featured 77-year-old barber Karl Manke clipping hair at the top of the state capitol’s steps.
Mr. Manke wielded his scissors at his Owosso barber shop Tuesday despite rulings against his operation by a state appeals court and an administrative law judge, according to his attorney.
But both orders should be stayed as Mr. Manke appeals both legal matters, one civil and one administrative, his attorney, David Kallman, said.
“As an attorney, I have advised Karl that he needs to abide by the court’s decision, but if he elects to go ahead and cut hair while following proper sanitary and social distancing rules, then I’m going to defend him,” Mr. Kallman said.
On May 29, the Justice Department said it would support seven companies that filed a federal lawsuit against Ms. Whitmer. The companies argue the restrictions had “significantly impaired in some instances their ability to maintain their economic livelihoods.”
The department’s statement of concern in the case comes after Attorney General William Barr on April 27 asked federal prosecutors “to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The businesses are a real estate brokerage, a landscaping company, an automotive glass exporter, an engine oil and auto parts distributor, a jewelry store, a dentist, and a chain of car washes. The owners say that while some similar enterprises have been allowed to stay open, they have not.
On May 22, Ms. Whitmer extended Michigan’s closures until June 12, although she has begun allowing some economic activity to return in parts of the state. She took that step one day after a state judge tossed a lawsuit from the Republican legislative majority that accused her of assuming excessive powers under the state’s Emergency Management Act.
Ms. Whitmer has “issued over 100 executive orders that impose sweeping limitations on nearly all aspects of life for citizens of Michigan, significantly impairing in some instances their ability to maintain their economic livelihoods,” the Justice Department said in announcing its support.
Several federal prosecutors called Ms. Whitmer’s slew of executive orders arbitrary and thus infringing on clear constitutional protections.
“I have no doubt about the governor’s good intentions, but the executive orders arbitrarily discriminate by allowing some businesses to operate while similar businesses must close or limit their operations,” said Matthew Schneider, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan who oversees Mr. Barr’s April initiative.
“Under the governor’s orders it’s OK to go to a hardware store and buy a jacket, but it’s a crime to go inside a clothing store and buy the identical jacket without making an appointment,” Mr. Schneider said. “That’s arbitrary.”
Mr. Manke is cutting hair by appointment and consequently his barber shop is avoiding long lines and any violations of social distancing requirements, Mr. Kallman said.
Nevertheless, shortly before the close of business Tuesday, a contempt motion was filed against Mr. Manke by the Michigan attorney general, Mr. Kallman said. A county judge has scheduled a hearing on that motion for June 11.
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