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Missouri Attorney General lacked authority to order schools to drop mask rules, judge rules

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis. Schmitt held the press conference after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for most health care workers.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Former Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, photographed in November 2021 outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, sued more than 40 school districts over their mask mandates during his successful U.S. Senate campaign.

A Jackson County judge ruled the state’s former attorney general lacked the authority to order school districts to drop their mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision from Judge Marco Roldan on Friday found Eric Schmitt, now a U.S. senator, “exceeded his lawful authority” when he ordered dozens of school districts in December 2021 to rescind measures put in place to mitigate COVID transmission in schools.

“Aside from lacking any authority over locally elected boards of education, the Attorney General’s orders did not follow Missouri law and were therefore without legal force or effect,” Roldan said. “Neither Attorney General Schmitt nor his successor has disavowed the orders, and in fact, the Attorney General continues to insist that school districts lack the very authority granted them under Missouri law.”

A spokesperson for the office of Attorney General Andrew Bailey, Schmitt’s successor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Schmitt sued more than 40 school districts over their mask mandates in January 2022, then frequently touted those suits on social media during his successful run for U.S. Senate. The Lee’s Summit School District fired back with a counterclaim arguing that Schmitt’s “bullying” behavior threatened the balance of authority between state and school district officials.

Nearly all the lawsuits were dropped or dismissed, but the Lee’s Summit School District forged ahead with its request for the courts to confirm Schmitt had no legal power to order schools to cease their COVID mitigation efforts.

“This ruling affirms that Missouri law empowers locally elected School Boards to control district operations,” school board president Rodrick Sparks said in a statement. “We’re thankful for this decision and the clarity it provides for our continued efforts to serve our students, staff and community.”

In telling schools to drop their mask mandates, Schmitt relied on a Cole County judge’s decision that a Missouri law enabling local health departments to issue public health orders was unconstitutional. Roldan, the judge, said in his ruling that no school districts were involved in that case so the judgment did not apply to their public health decisions.

Roldan wrote that some parents followed Schmitt’s orders by notifying the Lee’s Summit School District that they would send their children to school without masks, “leading to even greater confusion than the pandemic had already caused.”

Joe Hatley, an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District, said the district’s board of education felt the orders led people to believe the attorney general had authority that rests with the school board.

The ruling states that the former attorney general’s orders would have prohibited school districts from excluding students from school who were liable to transmit an infectious disease of any kind.

“Even though COVID-19 may have waned somewhat, there are infectious disease outbreaks all the time. You could have kids coming down with mumps, measles, whatever, that would be infectious,” Hatley said. “And the order established the right of the school board to exclude students from school while they are contagious, which is what state law allows.”

Jodi Fortino

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