Law & Courts

Florida Attorney General Joins Mask Mandate Legal Fight as State Defies Court Ruling

By Ana Ceballos, Miami Herald — September 02, 2021 4 min read
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody speaks alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis during a news conference, Thursday, April 8, 2021, at PortMiami in Miami.
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Attorney General Ashley Moody on Wednesday injected her legal opinion into Florida’s ongoing court battle over school mask mandates, adding noise to an increasingly political fight.

Moody, a Republican ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, said school districts must comply with a state rule that says parents must have the ability to opt their kids out of mask requirements “unless and until the judiciary declares them invalid.”

Her legal opinion comes days after a Leon County judge ruled that DeSantis and his administration “acted without legal authority” when issuing and enforcing a blanket ban on mask mandates. The ruling was delivered orally and is not effective until written and filed. As of Wednesday evening, no ruling has been filed, which has given an opening to DeSantis and his administration to act.

Minutes after Moody published her legal opinion, the Florida Department of Education issued a statement that said her legal opinion proves districts have broken the law and need to follow state orders because “the judiciary has not declared the rule to be invalid.”

“Today, the department is urging every school district that has mandated masks without an opt out to promptly change its policies and comply with Florida’s rules and laws,” said Department of Education spokesman Jared Ochs, who did not immediately respond when asked if the state agency coordinated with Moody’s office.

11 districts defying the state’s order

Eleven of Florida’s 67 school districts have imposed temporary strict mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two districts — Broward and Alachua — have been sanctioned as a result of requiring parents to provide a doctor’s note before they can opt out of masking requirements. Eight other districts, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, have been told by the state they are in non-compliance and could face sanctions.

Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the mask mandate case, said he believes the state is acting inappropriately. He said there is legal precedent that “holds an oral ruling valid and enforceable” until the time it is memorialized in writing.

Gallagher said both parties have the transcript of Circuit Court Judge John Cooper’s ruling, therefore, he argued, the state “cannot claim confusion” and defy the court order.

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to defy the court’s oral ruling,” Gallagher said in an email to the Herald/ Times on Wednesday.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Dec. 10, four states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. The order was later extended. The case is now awaiting a ruling from a federal appeals court.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York
    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Virginia

    An executive order from Virginia's new governor that is set to take effect on Jan. 24 rescinds the state's current school mask mandate and instead allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school.

    17. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has threatened to sue school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/20/2022| Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Cooper ruled Friday that DeSantis exceeded his authority in barring universal mask mandates when he issued an executive order that drew its authority from portions of the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The law was approved by the Republican-dominated state Legislature and signed by the governor on June 29.

DeSantis was unable to wield his emergency power under state law to issue the executive order, Cooper added, because he had already allowed the COVID-19 state of emergency to lapse a month before he issued it. So, Cooper said, the governor has to rely on the written language of the new law.

The law says the state is not allowed to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent” to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

Legal limbo until order is written, final

Cooper argued the governor and his administration used the first half of the statute, but not the second part, when issuing an executive order and subsequent rules that barred districts from imposing strict mask mandates. Therefore, he said, the state’s mask orders were unlawful and districts could continue enforcing their mask mandates if they proved they were reasonable as the full law intends.

“My ruling in this case, if you want to put it in one sentence, is, I am enforcing the bill passed by the Legislature and requiring that anyone who uses that bill to follow all provisions and not part of the provisions,” Cooper said.

The problem is the ruling is in somewhat of a legal limbo. Cooper said his ruling would not be effective until it is written and filed. The attorneys representing the state made a point of asking Cooper to clarify that was the case.

Additionally, DeSantis and the Department of Education have said they intend to appeal immediately.

In her legal opinion, Moody noted an appeal would grant an automatic stay on the ruling unless a court vacates the stay. In other words, once the state appeals, and it intends to do so, Cooper’s ruling will be paused and the governor’s executive order will go back into effect and the state will enforce it, unless a court says otherwise.

That means the status quo could remain in place as 11 Florida school districts defy the governor’s mask orders by requiring a doctor’s note before kids can opt out of a mandate.

See Also

Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2021. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2021. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
Marta Lavandier/AP
School & District Management Florida Withholds School Board Salaries Over Mask Mandates
Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 31, 2021
5 min read

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Monday announced that he has begun withholding money from the Broward and Alachua school districts, which imposed stricter mask mandates than the governor wanted.

Broward and Alachua were the first to go through the state’s inquiry process over the issue. But eight other districts, including the largest ones in the state — Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Duval and Orange counties — have been asked by the state to respond this week on whether they intend to reverse course or not.

Their deadline to reply was 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2021, Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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