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Jackson, St. Louis counties say 'chaos now reigns' after Missouri judge's health department ruling

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis.

Jackson and St. Louis counties are asking to appeal a Cole County judge's ruling that said local health departments in Missouri cannot issue health orders. Attorney general Eric Schmitt declined to appeal the case.

Saying that “chaos now reigns” in Missouri’s public health landscape, Jackson and St. Louis counties want permission to appeal a judge’s decision that stopped local health departments from issuing orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Both counties late on Monday filed a motion together to intervene in a Cole County case where a judge said local health departments cannot issue orders or rules without the involvement of elected officials. The ruling occurred in a case where St. Louis-area residents and business owners sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) to challenge its ability to issue mask orders.

Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt, whose office often represents the interests of state agencies like DHSS in court, decided not to appeal the Cole County ruling. Instead, Schmitt used the ruling to claim mask mandates had been invalidated and referenced it in threats to school districts around the state.

Jackson and St. Louis counties said Schmitt “abdicated his duty” when he decided not to take up an appeal for DHSS and accused him of “instead electing to embark on a campaign of litigation terror against local governments and schools throughout the State.”

Schmitt is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in a bid to replace the retiring Roy Blunt.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the Missouri attorney general's office, said Monday's filings were "late and meritless" and that neither county had authority to get involved in a case in which they were not named parties.

"We will continue to fight for the liberties of all six million Missourians," Nuelle said in a statement.

The state's two largest counties predicted a renewed spike in coronavirus infections.

“In short, if the Court’s Judgment is not set aside, community spread of all communicable diseases will no doubt skyrocket in this State,” St. Louis and Jackson counties argued in their motion, “while mechanisms for combatting [sic] any such spread will have been dismantled.”

Monday’s intervention comes days after an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District wrote Schmitt a letter insisting the attorney general’s threats to Missouri school districts “not only lack legal effect — they are simply wrong” because the Cole County case didn’t apply to schools.

Last week, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page called the Cole County litigation a “friendly fire case” between Schmitt and the St. Louis interests who filed the lawsuit and said the county was evaluating its options.

“It is unprecedented and it has created quite a problem for people in Missouri,” Page said. “We have a lot of legal experts looking at our strategies and we will deploy whatever we can to try and do everything we can to protect the health and welfare in St. Louis County because we know our public health orders have saved lives in St. Louis County and made a difference.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

Updated: December 14, 2021 at 9:20 AM CST
This version has been updated to include a comment from Schmitt's spokesman.
Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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