Robert Kaplan of Burlington now represents Andre “Mike” Desautels in the civil court case in Orleans County — the state’s first legal test of Gov. Phil Scott’s efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Lawyer Deborah Bucknam — who last year represented a Rutland gym owner who similarly bucked pandemic-related rules — argued Desautels’ case before Judge Mary Miles Teachout, but the judge ruled against him last month.
Bucknam withdrew from the case April 2, according to court records.
From late 2015 to this February, Desautels ran a UPS franchise on Main Street in Newport. But after months of refusing to comply with Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order requiring business employees who deal with the public to wear face coverings, UPS corporate leaders cut ties with Desautels.
Soon after, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan sued the business owner, citing repeated attempts to gain his compliance.
The judge must now decide whether Desautels will receive any penalties for violating the mandate. The maximum penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 per violation, with each day of noncompliance counting as its own violation. The next hearing is April 29.
Bucknam took a multipronged approach while leading the defense, expanding well beyond the question about Desautels’ compliance. Bucknam raised arguments about the mask mandate, its scientific backing and whether it was constitutional.
Kaplan, who became Desautels’ attorney Monday, seems to be eyeing a more focused approach.
“There’s been way too much focus on this issue of masks,” he said this week.
The key issue for his client is “how much unbridled authority is going to be given over to the executive branch of government under the guise of an emergency,” he said.
Mandates by the governor, rather than laws passed by legislators, “can’t become an exception that swallows the rule,” he said.
Through this case, Kaplan said, he and his client hope to determine what limits exist on executive mandates when the Legislature is in session.
Kaplan said he could not comment on why Bucknam no longer represents his client. Reached at a phone listed for his business, Desautels declined to comment, too. Bucknam did not return two voicemails left at her office seeking comment.
A hearing in the case had been slated for Thursday, when Teachout was expected to consider penalties against Desautels.
But when Kaplan joined the case, he wrote in a motion that he needed more time to review “this complex matter involving issues of governmental authority and science.”
Newport Police Chief Travis Bingham said Friday he is not sure whether Desautels is still in business. State attorneys have asked his department to continue with compliance checks, Bingham said, but every time officers show up, no one appears to be at the building.
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