The Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Governor Andy Beshear’s authority to issue emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
The verdict comes after several northern Kentucky business owners sued Beshear over his orders in late June, affecting their reopening during the pandemic.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined and expanded the lawsuit. He asked the court to determine whether Beshear had the authority to issue orders in a state of emergency.
Judge Lisabeth Hughes wrote on behalf of the court that the governor had the authority to issue emergency orders.
“The governor’s orders were and are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of all Kentucky citizens,” wrote Hughes.
“This type of highly contagious etiological hazard is precisely the type of emergency that requires a nationwide response and is properly used as the basis for governor’s actions under KRS Chapter 39A.”
The verdict is a victory for Beshear but could be short-lived. Republican-led legislature leaders have railed against Beshear’s actions, saying they will pass laws to remove some of his emergency powers when the General Assembly meets in January.
Following the verdict, Beshear said the court had shown that he had the authority to manage the state’s response in a state of emergency.
“As the Supreme Court said today, these steps are legal and fully constitutional as no one is sacrificing any constitutional rights,” Beshear said during a press conference.
And he said it would be irresponsible for lawmakers to try to evade its emergency powers during the pandemic.
“We all know that the response to this Supreme Court-recognized emergency, which has a comprehensive nationwide approach, cannot be carried out by two chambers trying to work it out,” Beshear said.
“There is a lot of good work a legislature can do, but none of it is quick. The system is actually set up to slow down. “
Republican lawmakers have been frustrated that they have little direct role in responding to the pandemic outside of the legislature that ends in mid-April this year.
Republican-led legislature leaders have criticized several elements of Beshear’s response to the virus, from shutting down non-essential businesses early in the pandemic to lagging behind in unemployment claims in the summer.
Other Republican lawmakers have more broadly questioned the severity of the virus and the accuracy of state reporting on pandemic-related data.
Mike Lonergan, Kentucky Republican Party spokesman, said the GOP disagreed with the court’s decision.
“It’s a shame they sided with the governor. He refuses to cooperate with lawmakers and statewide constitutional officials. We look forward to upcoming legislative efforts to reassess the governor’s unilateral use of 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 “issue guidelines to protect the health of citizens,” but that he should employ a process that encourages more public input includes.
Cameron said he hoped lawmakers would change Beshear’s powers.
“Although the court disagreed with our position on this case, there are still questions about KRS 39A and executive power that need to be considered by the General Assembly in the upcoming term,” wrote Cameron.
Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, applauded the verdict and warned Republicans not to tweak the governor’s powers during the pandemic.
“With cases on the rise, it is reassuring that the governor’s very popular – and now confirmed as perfectly legal – measures to protect Kentuckians remain in place,” Self wrote. “Hopefully Daniel Cameron, Ryan Quarles and other Kentucky Republicans will finally do the right thing and stop politicizing 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 agrotourism businesses. A lower court ruled in Quarles’ favor, and the Supreme Court has not yet taken the case.
Kentucky hits new highs in coronavirus infection every week. On Wednesday, Beshear announced the highest one-day total of new coronavirus cases – 2,700 – after two weeks of escalating spread of the virus.
Beshear has issued recommendations to reduce the red zone, asking everyone in a county with a rapid spread in the community to avoid gatherings, eat out at restaurants, or shop for bare minimums. The recommendations reflect the “healthy at home” restrictions that Beshear put in place after the coronavirus outbreak in March, but he hasn’t gone so far as to put restrictions in place.
This story has been updated.
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