Binding the Bound: State Executive Emergency Powers and Democratic Legitimacy in the Pandemic

42 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2021 Last revised: 18 Jan 2022

See all articles by Avi Weiss

Avi Weiss

Columbia Law School; Columbia Law Review

Date Written: January 1, 2021


One of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a precipitous increase in unilateral executive lawmaking by governors across the country. These actions engendered a storm of controversy as decisions relating to the virus quickly became tinged with political considerations, and this public dissent eroded the legitimacy of executive government. This Note discusses the trade-offs between democratic legitimacy and technocratic agility in executive emergency lawmaking. Drawing on a fifty-state survey, this Note shows how although drafters of these statutes attempted to balance executive power with legislative constraint, the statutes did not anticipate a long-duration, complex emergency like COVID-19. The statutes therefore generally do not allow substantive input by the legislature, and this has resulted in judicial showdowns and legislative pushback, eroding the legitimacy of executive action and more importantly endangering responses to future emergencies. This Note argues that in order to maintain robust and effective emergency power statutes in all states for future similar emergencies, states should revise the emergency power statutes to include more substantive legislative input, while retaining as much executive agility as possible. This Note suggests a model for such a revision to state statutes, inspired by the Congressional Review Act.

Keywords: COVID-19, governors, executive orders, democratic legitimacy, pandemic, emergency powers

Suggested Citation

Weiss, Avi, Binding the Bound: State Executive Emergency Powers and Democratic Legitimacy in the Pandemic (January 1, 2021). 121 Colum. L. Rev. 1853 (2021), Available at SSRN: or

Avi Weiss (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

United States

Columbia Law Review ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

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