Kentucky Politics

On Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether the legislature can limit Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency powers.

Beshear issued dozens of executive orders throughout the coronavirus pandemic, limiting crowd sizes, requiring people to wear masks and imposing curfews at bars and restaurants.

But Republican lawmakers passed several bills earlier this year attempting to undermine the Democratic governor’s ability to respond to states of emergency on his own.

Beshear sued and Franklin Circuit Court agreed to block those measures. After an appeal from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the challenge will now be tested before the state’s highest court.

The state Supreme Court will also hear Beshear’s appeal of a Scott County Circuit ruling that blocked the state from enforcing coronavirus restrictions against several restaurants and breweries—Chief Justice John Minton said the cases would be heard at the same time “for purposes of judicial economy.”

The hearing comes a day before most of the governor’s coronavirus-related restrictions are scheduled to end, but it could still determine how states of emergency are handled in the future and how much power the legislative branch has to tweak the executive branch.

A final ruling in the case will likely come later in the summer.

The state Supreme Court unanimously ruled last year that Beshear’s coronavirus-related orders were legal, but that was before the legislature changed the laws governing his emergency powers.

Those laws, which Beshear is challenging, include:

House Bill 1: allowing businesses and schools to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic as long as they follow CDC guidelines, superseding Beshear’s orders.

Senate Bill 1: limiting a governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless the legislature extends them. That means governors would have to call lawmakers back to Frankfort for a special legislative session to renew orders if they are not in a regular session.

Senate Bill 2: giving the legislature more oversight over emergency administrative regulations and allowing public comment.

In a brief, Beshear’s office argues lawmakers are “usurping executive authority” and attempting to violate the separation of powers between branches of government.

The governor’s office also argues lawmakers are violating the state constitution by forcing the governor to call special legislative sessions if he wants to extend executive orders beyond 30 days.

“If this provision had been in place from the beginning of the pandemic, the Governor would have been required to call the General Assembly into special session 11 times for at least a total of 55 days, at an estimated minimum cost to the Commonwealth of over $3,600,000,” the governor’s general counsel Amy Cubbage stated in the brief.

Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is defending the laws restricting the governor’s powers, says the legislature has the power to grant and take away authority.

“Otherwise, the Governor would have standing to sue the General Assembly to make it pass bills that he prefers on the theory that he is being injured by their non-passage. Or he could sue to prevent the General Assembly from repealing or amending laws that he likes. This cannot be the law because it would create a separation-of-powers disaster of unimaginable proportions,” Cameron’s Solicitor General Chad Meredith wrote in a brief.

The hearing will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the state Supreme Court chamber in Frankfort and will be streamed online on KET.

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