A local judge has officially rejected Huntington Beach’s legal challenge against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s beach closures, saying the beaches are now open for active use while also pointing to Supreme Court precedent that liberties are not absolute when a state is fighting a disease epidemic.
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The full ruling late Friday by OC Superior Court Judge Nathan R. Scott largely echoes a federal court ruling a week earlier. Both pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts finding that individual rights can be superseded by the state’s right to protect against a disease epidemic.
“[Plaintiffs] have not shown a sufficient likelihood that a narrow restriction on passive beach use during a pandemic is unconstitutional,” Scott wrote in his ruling.
“The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that the Constitution ‘does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from constraint,’ ” Scott added, quoting from the Supreme Court decision.
“‘Even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one’s own will. It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others. It is, then, liberty regulated by law,’ ” Scott wrote, further quoting from the Supreme Court decision.
“When smallpox was the public health threat, the Supreme Court held that ‘a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,’ ” Scott wrote.
“Emergency public health orders should be upheld unless they lack any ‘real or substantial relation’ to public health or are ‘beyond all question a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law.’ ”
“Under this time-honored standard, the Governor’s stay-at-home order has repeatedly survived constitutional challenges in federal court,” Scott added.
“The much narrower restraint on passive beach use passes the same standard. It is reasonably related to public safety, as the interim state epidemiologist explains….It preserves the constitutional rights to travel, assemble, and coastal access. People can go to the beach, express their views, and enter the water.”
“While plaintiffs disagree with the Governor about how to prevent spreading COVID-19, ‘[i]t is no part of the function of a court…to determine which…modes [are] likely to be the most effective for the protection of the public against disease,’ ” Scott wrote, quoting again from the Supreme Court decision.
“The state cannot ‘properly abdicate its function to guard the public health and safety,’ ” the ruling adds.
“Fighting a pandemic is a statewide concern. Our Legislature has entrusted the Governor with broad statutory authority to handle emergencies at a statewide level.”
Citing many of the same reasons, Scott also rejected a similar legal challenge to Newsom in a lawsuit filed by Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney and former vice chair of the California Republican Party.
With Friday’s ruling, all of the known legal challenges to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s beach restrictions have been rejected by state and federal courts citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1905 precedent in the Jacobson case.
Dana Point was part of Huntington Beach’s lawsuit, but its City Council decided to withdraw last week.
Friday’s ruling credits both sides in the Huntington Beach case – city officials and the governor – for their “joint efforts to provide public access to the beaches while protecting public safety.”
Under the city’s beach re-opening plan approved by the governor last week, people can use the beach for walking, running, hiking, bicycle riding, swimming, surfing, body surfing, boogie boarding, kit surfing, paddle boarding, skim boarding, kayaking and fishing, according to the court ruling.
Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said Friday’s ruling suggests the lawsuit succeeded in getting the governor to step back from the full beach closures.
“We are obviously disappointed but a read of the court’s decision makes it clear that the Governor’s partial reopening of the beaches created a more ‘narrowly tailored’ State beaches regulation sufficient to pass Constitutional muster,” Gates said in a written statement to Voice of OC.
“As such, while this ruling wasn’t what we hoped for, clearly the Governor’s walking back of his full beach closure immediately after the City filed this lawsuit suggests the City’s efforts to challenge the Governor’s full beach closure had some merit.”
The Superior Court ruling was focused on the current, more relaxed, beach closures that allow passive use like walking and running.
The federal ruling, in a case brought by Newport Beach Councilman Kevin Muldoon, found that even if the full beach closures were in effect, the state’s right to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease would likely outweigh people’s right to go to the beach.
“Muldoon argues that the closure of the Newport Beach beaches and other beaches violates his constitutional rights,” wrote U.S. District Judge James V. Selna.
“But ‘a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,’ ” Selna added, quoting from the Jacobson decision.
“States and municipalities have greater leeway to burden constitutionally protected rights during public emergencies,” he continued.
“The balance of hardships tips substantially in favor of state, given the public’s strong interest in reducing the spread of COVID-19 with measures designed to limit physical contact.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].