TOPEKA — The chief of the Kansas Supreme Court issued a stay Tuesday of a district court ruling that declared unconstitutional portions of an emergency management law adopted to recalibrate government authority during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice Marla Luckert released the one-page order in response to a request from Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who plans to proceed with an appeal of the July 15 ruling by a Johnson County District Court judge that Senate Bill 40 was unenforceable.
The emergency management reform bill had been approved this year by the Republican-led Legislature and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. The constitutional dispute emerged when parents challenged a school district’s mask mandate under provisions included in the revised Kansas Emergency Management Act or KEMA.
“Today’s order from the Kansas Supreme Court granting our motion to stay the district court decision during the appeal is welcome news,” Schmidt said. “The district court’s ruling had created unnecessary confusion about Kansas emergency management laws at a time when the rise in COVID cases makes certainty and stability in the law even more critical.”
District Court Judge David Hauber had rejected Schmidt’s request to suspend the district court decision finding KEMA in violation of the Kansas Constitution. The attorney general argued rejection of the stay would create “legal anarchy.” The judge, however, said the attorney general raised “fantastical” arguments.
The judge found the new version of KEMA conflicted with principles of separation of power among branches of government. In part, the statute moved authority to issue or extend disaster declarations from the governor to a council of state legislators.
Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, said the Supreme Court’s order would serve to preserve “certainty to our current legal framework.”
“Now, more than ever, it is important that the checks and balances we enacted remain in place, and that due process rights continue for Kansas citizens,” Masterson said.
Hauber waded into the controversy after parents in the Shawnee Mission School District filed a lawsuit in opposition to a policy requiring students to wear a face covering as a shield against COVID-19. In the original lawsuit, parents Scott Bozarth and Kristin Butler asserted implementation of a mask mandate could cause “psychological harm.”
Issues raised by the lawsuit and the judge’s decision have taken on new relevance as the delta variant of COVID-19 spread throughout communities in Kansas at the same time K-12 classes resumed.
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.