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‘No live controversy exists’: Judge rules against Schmitt in Columbia schools mask case

In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference in St. Louis.
Jeff Roberson
Associated Press
In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference in St. Louis.

Circuit Judge Josh Devine said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's anti-mask case against Columbia Public Schools was moot. The Lee’s Summit School District continues to pursue a counterclaim against against Schmitt.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Thursday lost on almost every point raised to prevent dismissal of his office’s lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools over its mask mandate.

Circuit Judge Josh Devine, ruling in one of Schmitt's highest-profile mask cases, wrote that the district had not required students to wear masks for more than four months and was unlikely to reinstate the rule.

The case is moot, Devine wrote.

“The court concludes that no present, live controversy exists for the court to resolve,” Devine wrote.

The district has been sued twice by Schmitt’s office over its rules requiring students to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The district is happy the lawsuit is over, spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark wrote in a statement to The Missouri Independent. “There was no reason for this case to move forward, with CPS singled out as the only public school district in the entire state of Missouri being sued by the Attorney General for something the district wasn’t doing.”

The case has been “a waste of time, energy, resources, and tax dollars,” Baumstark wrote. “With this unnecessary distraction concluded, our dedicated staff will remain focused on providing a safe and productive learning environment for our scholars, as we prepare for another successful school year to start in August.”

Schmitt’s office, in a statement from spokesman Chris Nuelle, said there was a victory in the lawsuit because the district dropped its mask mandate after the case was filed.

“Attorney General Schmitt has been steadfast in his fight against the forced masking of children in school all day, which is ineffective and causes lasting, negative impacts on our children,” Nuelle wrote.

Columbia Public Schools was the first to be sued by Schmitt in August over its mask rules. In September a Boone County Circuit Court judge declined to allow Schmitt to use the case as a class action lawsuit against all districts with mask requirements, and it was later dismissed by Schmitt when the district allowed its mask mandate to expire.

When the district opened in August, Missouri was near the peak of the delta variant wave of COVID-19 and when it dropped the requirement, cases had fallen substantially. When school reopened in January after the Christmas break, the omicron variant was fueling record case counts statewide, with more cases in the first 12 days of January than at any other month of the pandemic.

And that is when the second lawsuit was filed in January as part of Schmitt’s wave of 47 lawsuitsagainst school districts across the state. Thursday’s ruling leaves only two cases remaining.

In his decision, Devine shot down the two arguments made by assistant attorney general James Atkins in a May hearing opposing the district’s motion to dismiss the case. The case should be continued, Atkins argued, because the district stopped requiring masks to engineer the dismissal and could reinstate the rule as soon as that is achieved.

But the school year ended and the summer term has almost concluded with no new mandate, Devine wrote.

“Given these facts, the court concludes that there is no ‘reasonable expectation’ that defendant will reimplement a mask mandate in CPS as asserted by plaintiffs,” Devine wrote.

The other legal argument, that the district could reinstate, then revoke, a mask mandate in a way that avoids an ultimate ruling, is “a close call,” Devine wrote, because Columbia schools could bring masks back.

But the claim it will do that is speculative, he wrote, and there are other cases in other circuits where Schmitt’s office is litigating over active mask rules.

In late May, a St. Louis County judge dismissed one count of Schmitt’s lawsuit against the University City School District’s mask mandate but left the overall lawsuit in place.

Meanwhile, the Lee’s Summit School District has continued to pursuea counterclaim of its own against Schmitt and is asking a judge to declare the attorney general overstepped the limits of his authority by ordering schools to end masking requirements.

Schmitt alsoannounced six new lawsuits against school districts’ face mask requirements last month, which challenge district rules that allow mask mandates to be reimposed if COVID cases reach a certain threshold.

And in his statement, Nuelle said more cases would be filed wherever a mask mandate is imposed.

“Make no mistake, the Attorney General’s Office will be watching summer school masking policies and school policies when students return in the fall to ensure that schools cannot yet again attempt to force the masking of children,” he wrote.

If that happens, Devine wrote, the courts in Boone County will be open.

“Furthermore, in the event that defendant were to reimplement a mask mandate in CPS, plaintiffs are free to file another lawsuit in this county,” Devine wrote. “ The practice of the 13th Judicial Circuit is to expedite any case involving a time-sensitive claim for injunctive relief.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent. Tessa Weinberg of The Independent staff contributed to this report.

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