The Supreme Court of Missouri in Jefferson City, as photographed on May 24, 2023 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that St. Louis and Jackson counties should have been allowed to intervene in a lawsuit that struck down local health orders aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Both counties will now have the authority to appeal the November 2021 decision, in which Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green declared local COVID-19 mandates violated the Missouri Constitution.
When Green’s original order was issued, state health officials wanted to file an appeal.
But then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt refused. That’s when St. Louis County, Jackson County and two rural public health agencies attempted to take the case into their own hands and away from the attorney general’s office.
Green would not allow them to file a motion for a new trial or to appeal the judgment, and the question eventually made its way to the state Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the court sided with the two counties, concluding they had a right to intervene as soon as it became clear that their interests would no longer be protected by the attorney general. The two local health agencies, however, will not be allowed to intervene on procedural grounds.
The attorney general defended the regulations in the original lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, Judge Patricia Breckenridge wrote in the unanimous ruling. Schmitt entered an appearance on behalf of DHSS, filed an answer denying plaintiffs’ claims and defended the validity of the DHSS regulations in this case until the circuit court entered judgment.
“Therefore, as a matter of law, it would not be reasonable to hold the counties should have known the attorney general, in his capacity as counsel for DHSS, would not continue to defend the regulations on appeal,” Breckenridge wrote.
She went on to write that because the circuit court’s judgment declares COVID regulations invalid, “the counties cannot preserve the authority those regulations provide unless they intervene to appeal the judgment. If intervention is denied, the counties lose and cannot regain their authority.”
In seeking to intervene in the case, St. Louis and Jackson counties argued that Schmitt — who resigned the attorney general’s office last year to join the U.S. Senate — choose not to appeal the decision in order to “immediately weaponized the judgment against local governments and schools across the state.”
In the ruling’s aftermath, Schmitt began threatening and suing school districts, demanding they end all COVID mitigation efforts.
All of the lawsuits were eventually dismissed except for one against Lee’s Summit R-7 School District. In May, a Jackson County judge ruled in favor of Lee’s Summit, concluding that Schmitt lacked authority to make those demands of school districts.
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