Kentucky Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in favor of Gov. Andy Beshear’s power to issue emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling comes after several Northern Kentucky business owners sued Beshear in late June over his orders, which affected their reopening during the pandemic.

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined the lawsuit and expanded it, asking the court to rule on whether Beshear had the power to issue any orders during the state of emergency.

Justice Lisabeth Hughes wrote on behalf of the court, saying that the governor did have the power to issue emergency executive orders.

“The Governor’s orders were, and continue to be, necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of all Kentucky citizens,” Hughes wrote.

“This type of highly contagious etiological hazard is precisely the type of emergency that requires a statewide response and properly serves as a basis for the Governor’s actions under KRS Chapter 39A.”

The ruling is a victory for Beshear, but could be short-lived. Leaders of the Republican-led legislature have railed against Beshear’s actions, and say they will pass laws to strip some of his emergency powers when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

After the ruling, Beshear said the court showed that he has the authority to manage the state’s response during the state of emergency.

“As the Supreme Court said today, no one’s sacrificing any constitutional rights, these steps are legal and fully constitutional,” Beshear said during a press conference.

And he said it would be irresponsible for the legislature to try and strip his emergency powers during the pandemic.

“We all know that responding to this emergency, which the Supreme Court recognized takes a comprehensive, statewide approach, can’t be done by two chambers trying to hammer it out,” Beshear said.

“There’s lots of good work a legislature can do, but none of it is fast. The system is set up in fact to slow it down.”

Republican lawmakers have been frustrated that they have little direct role in responding to the pandemic outside of the legislative session, which end in mid-April this year.

Leaders of the Republican-led legislature have criticized several elements of Beshear’s response to the virus, from a shut down of non-essential businesses early on during the pandemic, to a backlog of unemployment claims over the summer.

Other Republican lawmakers have more broadly questioned the seriousness of the virus and the veracity of the state’s reporting of pandemic-related data.

Mike Lonergan, spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said the GOP disagrees with the court’s ruling.

“It is a shame they sided with the Governor. He refuses to work with lawmakers and statewide constitutional officers. We’re looking forward to upcoming legislative efforts to reexamine the governor’s unilateral use of emergency executive powers,” Lonergan wrote in a statement.

Attorney General Cameron, who joined the lawsuit against Beshear’s orders, wrote in a statement that the governor should be able to “enact policies that protect the health of citizens,” but that he should use a process that includes more public input.

Cameron said that he hopes the legislature will alter Beshear’s powers.

“While the court disagreed with our position in this case, there are still lingering issues concerning KRS 39A and executive power that must be considered by the General Assembly in the upcoming legislative session,” Cameron wrote.

Ben Self, chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, applauded the ruling and cautioned Republicans against tweaking the governor’s powers during the pandemic.

“As cases are spiking, it is reassuring that the governor’s very popular—and now confirmed to be absolutely legal—measures to protect Kentuckians will stay in place,” Self wrote. “Hopefully, Daniel Cameron, Ryan Quarles and other Kentucky Republicans will finally do the right thing, and stop playing politics with this virus and work with the governor to keep Kentucky safe.”

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles sued Beshear in June, arguing that the governor’s restrictions should apply to the state’s 548 designated agritourism businesses. A lower court ruled in favor of Quarles and the Supreme Court hasn’t taken up the case yet.

Kentucky is reaching new highs of coronavirus infections each week. On Wednesday, Beshear announced the highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases — 2,700 — after two weeks of sharply escalating spread of the virus.

Beshear has issued “red zone reduction” recommendations asking anyone in a county with rapid community spread to avoid any gatherings, eating inside restaurants or shopping other than essentials. The recommendations mirror the “healthy at home” restrictions Beshear enacted after coronavirus hit in March, but he hasn’t gone as far as issuing restrictions.

This story has been updated.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.