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Cole County judge rebuffs Jackson, St. Louis counties over bid to appeal Missouri COVID ruling

Marshall Griffin
St. Louis Public Radio
Cole County Judge Daniel Green ruled St. Louis and Jackson counties can't intervene in a case he decided.

St. Louis and Jackson counties failed to gain traction in their attempts at overturning a court ruling that curtailed the authority of local health departments to issue rules aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Cole County Judge Daniel Green on Wednesday denied motions filed by both counties and health departments from Cooper, Jefferson and Livingston counties to intervene in a lawsuit brought by St. Louis businesses against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

That lawsuit, filed almost exactly a year ago, challenged DHSS’s rules that allowed St. Louis County’s health director to impose health orders and guidelines. The lawsuit asked Green to rule the DHSS regulation unconstitutional.

Green issued a ruling in November in which he sided with the businesses. He said DHSS’s regulations violated state law by putting rulemaking and enforcement authority in the hands of unelected health department administrators. In other words, Green said rules and orders are the responsibility of elected officials, not appointed health officers.

Since then, some health departments have dropped their efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 800,000 people in the United States.

St. Louis and Jackson counties filed to intervene so they could appeal Green’s ruling. Doug Moore, a spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, signaled the county may appeal further.

“It’s not surprise,” Moore wrote in an email, “and we now have a path to appeal.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has maintained that the ruling applies to school districts as well as local health departments. In a statement Wednesday, Schmitt said he now plans on suing any school district or local health department that do not rescind its public health orders.

“We plan to begin enforcement action on non-compliant entities as soon as January,” Schmitt said

He could have appealed the case and was asked by DHSS to do so. But Schmitt, who is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, decided not to appeal. Instead, Schmitt invoked Green’s ruling when he told several school districts that they lack authority to impose COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Some school districts, like Columbia Public Schools, have since dropped certain rules, like mask mandates.

Others, particularly Lee’s Summit School District, told Schmitt that Green’s ruling had nothing to do with schools.

On Tuesday, Schmitt’s office filed an objection to the efforts to intervene in the Cole County case, saying the attorney general has the final say in whether to appeal appeal in cases against state agencies.

“Indeed, the Attorney General may appeal, or decide not to appeal, against the wishes of the department he represents,” the filing said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs criticized those who tried to intervene in the case, particularly St. Louis County, for wanting to get involved only after a ruling was issued.

“St. Louis County is only attempting an intervention at this very late stage because its County Executive is extremely displeased with the outcome of the case – not a matter of substantial injustice,” reads a filing by Kimberley Smith Mathis. “This is evidenced not only by the timing of the filing, but by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s political rant in the wake of this Court’s decision.”

She cited a Nov. 29 press conference in which Page took issue with Green’s ruling, calling the judge an “elected Republican judge – a politician – who has to run for reelection in a rural Trump-loving county” and who made a ruling in a “friendly-fire lawsuit between radical anti-maskers and the Attorney General.”

Based at St. Louis Public Radio, Steve Vockrodt is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative editor. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveVockrodt

Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.