Missouri AG says it’s not his job to clarify ruling’s impact on public health authority

The confusion and uncertainty caused by a November court ruling has also hampered public health officials’ efforts to control the spread of infectious diseases other than COVID

By: - February 16, 2022 3:48 pm

Missouri Attorney General Schmitt testifying to a Missouri House committee (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications).

Attorney General Eric Schmitt told lawmakers Wednesday it’s not his office’s job to advise local public health agencies on what mitigation measures they still have the authority to pursue — even after numerous departments ceased such efforts following the attorney general’s threats of legal action.

“We represent the state,” Schmitt said. “We don’t represent the local health boards.”

Schmitt’s comments came during a House Budget Committee hearing Wednesday, during which Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, raised questions about the attorney general’s enforcement of a consequential court ruling and his lawsuits against school districts with mask mandates.

A November ruling by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green declared COVID-19 health orders issued unilaterally by unelected health authorities “null and void.” Schmitt has fiercely sought its enforcement, including sending letters to public health departments across the state warning that if they didn’t comply with the ruling they would face litigation.

In the wake of Schmitt’s letter, over a dozen health departments stopped aspects of their COVID mitigation work, like posting case numbers or requiring quarantines of close contacts in schools. 

Records obtained by The Independent last month revealed that the confusion and uncertainty caused by the ruling and Schmitt’s letter also hampered public health officials’ efforts to control the spread of other infectious diseases.

Merideth said Schmitt’s letters were viewed as a threat, and questioned if it wasn’t also the attorney general’s responsibility to follow up and clarify with health departments “here are the only things I’m telling you that you need to stop.”

“The purpose of that letter was to advise what the ruling said,” Schmitt said. “As far as the specific applications for each one of those individual boards, that’s probably not the business we’re going to be in. But we did want to make clear what the ruling stood for. And that’s why we got the letter out afterwards.”

Schmitt said he was unclear if health departments had reached out to his office for clarity on the ruling, but that it was unlikely.

Local public health officials previously said silence from the state on the court ruling and its impacts has left them feeling like “we are on our own” and contributed to a patchwork interpretation of what authority they still retain.

“If you’re going to go in and make a demand,” Merideth said to Schmitt Wednesday, “then you’ve taken on the responsibility of giving them guidance as to what the law is.”

Schmitt said if any clarification was needed, he believed that the legislature was the entity to accomplish it.

A spokeswoman for DHSS said last month that the department had not proposed any legislative fixes or emergency rules to reestablish authority that the ruling struck down. Green’s decision to reject counties and health departments from intervening in the court case is currently being appealed and the Missouri Supreme Court has been requested to take up the case.

Schmitt said it was his decision not to pursue an appeal of the ruling, like the state health department had requested.

Merideth raised whether there was a conflict of interest between Schmitt publicly opposing DHSS’ position while at the same time the attorney general’s office represented the state health department in the case.

“I represent the people of this state. And that decision was a sound ruling, and we made a decision not to appeal,” Schmitt said. “And by the way, that’s what attorneys general have done since the beginning of time.”

One such example that Schmitt cited during Wednesday’s hearing centered around Christine Busalacchi’s right to die. In the 1990s the state fought to keep her alive, launching a lengthy court battle. But former Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon declined to continue to pursue the state’s case and requested it be dismissed, which was granted by the Missouri Supreme Court.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.