KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Over the past week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sent a flurry of cease and desist letters across the state targeting mask mandates.
The results have been immediate with many school districts and health departments opting to drop their health orders instead of facing a lawsuit.
But that’s not true in all cases. The Lee’s Summit School District isn’t backing down on its mask rule, and Jackson County has also filed a motion to intervene in the Cole County lawsuit leading to this situation.
This is all happening amid new COVID-related Missouri laws, so a lot of what’s legal versus not is still widely undecided.
On Monday, Schmitt, who’s also running for Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat, tweeted images of his latest cease and desist letter, this one sent to the Lee’s Summit School District.
But to the public, the weight of these letter is somewhat unclear, especially when posted within an hour of another tweet comparing COVID-19 variants to communism.
Allen Rostron, a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City, clarified what these letters actually are.
“These cease and desist letters are just the attorney general’s opinion. They’re not a legal decree that anyone is obligated to comply with. They’re just someone’s opinion about a legal issue. Anybody can send one. You don’t have to be the attorney general,” Rostron said.
Compliance with the letter might be based on wanting to avoid a lawsuit, whether you agree with the legal argument or not, Rostron said.
Jackson County Executive Frank White said they would risk another lawsuit if the county decides to reinstate a mask mandate. Jackson County is also joining St. Louis County in a motion challenging the Cole County circuit judge’s decision that Schmitt has wielded as justification for his demands.
“In a single proceeding, this court upended the longstanding public health framework in the state of Missouri, failed to consider relevant law and went far beyond the relief requested,” according to the counties’ motion.
This was the response from the attorney general’s office:
“These filings are both late and meritless. Further, since St. Louis and Jackson County were not parties during the litigation, they have no authority to intervene and appeal.”
But that’s not Schmitt’s decision to make. It’s actually just an argument. The decision will rely on the discretion of a judge.
“They weren’t parties to that litigation yet. They’re being affected by it. They would say, ‘We’re being adversely affected by it in significant ways’ because the attorney general is trying to take that ruling and extend it to cover other things,” Rostron said.
For now Missouri residents will be left with a lot of questions.
When do we find out who’s right in all of this? Does this play out in the courts or will people just generally accept what Schmitt said over time? How could this play out?
“It shows how law is complex, dynamic. A lot of times people tend to think, ‘It is whatever a court will say.’ But it’s not necessarily that. Courts don’t decide everything,” Rostron said.
“A lot of it does play out in terms of politics and what the public thinks and what government officials think and who wins the next election and all these sorts of things influence it as well. So there will probably be a decisions either in Cole County or in other litigation that could be filed in the rest of the state that will probably eventually bring some better clarity on the situation,” Rostron said.
“They will decide something on the authority of school districts for example to make decisions on this sort of thing. Or they might find the other way and decide that there is no such authority and further place restrictions on local control.”