Kentucky Politics

The Kentucky Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a lower court shouldn’t have blocked new laws that limit Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency powers during the pandemic. The order is not an overall ruling on their constitutionality, though.

Beshear filed a lawsuit in February after the state legislature passed several measures limiting his emergency powers, including a bill restricting the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless renewed by the legislature, and one allowing businesses and schools to ignore state emergency regulations as long as they follow CDC guidelines.

The state Supreme Court heard arguments over the case earlier this summer.

The decision means Beshear’s challenge to those laws will go back to Franklin Circuit Court, with an order for the lower court to no longer block the laws from going into effect. The court had put a temporary injunction on the laws.

The ruling is mixed. The court didn’t rule whether the laws are constitutional, but said they were “lawfully passed” and that Franklin Circuit Court overstepped its authority by blocking them.

The seven-member Kentucky Supreme Court wrote the lower court’s findings were “largely unsupported by sound legal principles because they are occasioned by erroneous interpretations of the constitutional authority of the Governor and law.”

The laws the high court is ordering to take effect are:

  • Senate Bill 1, limiting the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless renewed by the legislature
  • Senate Bill 2, giving the legislature more oversight over the administrative regulation process
  • House Bill 1, allowing businesses to stay open during the pandemic as long as they follow federal—and not state—guidelines.

The decision comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus is surging across Kentucky, with the state reporting its highest positivity rates over the last week and hospitals are struggling with ICU capacity and staffing.

Crystal Staley, Beshear’s communications director, says the order will allow the legislature to end Kentucky’s state of emergency, invalidating safety measures and putting funding at risk.

“It will further prevent the governor from taking additional steps such as a general mask mandate. The administration will work to determine whether the General Assembly would extend the state of emergency as we assess whether to call a special session. The Governor has had the courage to make unpopular decisions in order to keep Kentuckians safe – the court has removed much of his ability to do so moving forward. If called in to a special session, we hope the General Assembly would do the right thing,” Staley wrote in a statement.

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who defended the legislature’s measures limiting Beshear, said he hopes the governor consults lawmakers.

“For months, we have maintained that the Governor must work with the General Assembly during the COVID-19 crisis.  Today, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with our position. This is not a novel concept; in fact, it’s the bedrock of our system of government,” Cameron wrote in a statement.

In a separate opinion published on Saturday, Justice Lisabeth Hughes urged Beshear and lawmakers to work together to respond to the pandemic.

“As a Justice, and more pertinently as a lifelong Kentuckian, I implore all parties to this matter to lay down their swords and work together cooperatively to finish this immensely important task for the benefit of the people they serve,” Hughes wrote.

Earlier this week, a federal judge temporarily blocked Beshear’s school mask mandate from applying to private schools.

Beshear’s mask mandate for K-12 public schools and a separate 270-day mandate issued by the Kentucky Board of Education are still in effect.

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