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Eric Schmitt backed off COVID lawsuits, but Lee’s Summit schools want answers about his authority

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Then-Missouri treasurer Eric Schmitt speaks to fourth graders in the North Kansas City School District about financial literacy in 2017. Schmitt sued several Missouri school districts earlier this year over their mask requirements.

As Eric Schmitt prepares to leave the Missouri Attorney General's Office for the U.S. Senate, the Lee's Summit School District still wants a judge to rule about whether he had authority to demand that schools rescind public health orders.

Even though Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt backed off months ago from his lawsuits seeking to prevent schools from enforcing COVID-19 safety measures, one Kansas City-area school district is forging ahead, testing how much power Schmitt’s office can exercise in health emergencies.

After Schmitt sued the Lee’s Summit School District in January to rescind rules meant to mitigate the risk of coronavirus transmission in schools, the district fired back with a counterclaim arguing that Schmitt’s “bullying” behavior threatened the balance of authority between state and school district officials.

In a nutshell, the district is now asking a Jackson County judge to decide once and for all whether Schmitt acted within his authority to demand that schools stop requiring children to wear masks during the pandemic. It’s an authority that Schmittmade a show of invoking publicly as he successfully ran for U.S. Senate this year but one that the school district claims Schmitt is now seeking to avoid defending in court.

Last month, the district urged the judge in the case to “not shy away from shutting down Schmitt’s effort to arrogate authority to himself where he has none.”

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment or offer an explanation why Schmitt isn’t eager for a judicial decision on whether he has authority over school district public health policies.

In a court filing last week, Schmitt asked that a judge dismiss the district’s counterclaim, arguing there’s nothing left to sort out in court now that the district no longer requires students to wear masks.

But in their brief, the district’s lawyers said that the COVID-19 threat remains, as well as higher-than-usual cases of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which may necessitate public health measures in the future. So it wants clarity on whether the attorney general has the authority, as he asserted in his multiple lawsuits against school districts, to intervene if that were to occur.

“Schmitt has never changed his position or withdrawn his prior orders,” attorneys for the Lee’s Summit district asserted. “Instead, he is doubling down — gaslighting the District for suggesting that it remains under threat or in a dispute with Schmitt.”

Joe Hatley, an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District, said in an email that “we tried to explain in our briefing why the District felt it was important to continue with the counterclaim.” He declined to comment further, noting the case was awaiting a decision by the judge.

Schmitt’s office sued multiple school districts in Missouri in January, when the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus led to a severe spike in infections.

At the time, Schmitt’s office argued that school districts had no authority to issue public health orders for schoolchildren and that issuing mask requirements “creates a barrier to education that far outweighs any speculative benefit.”

At the outset of the pandemic, Schmitt sued the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party, blaming them for the COVID-19 pandemic and claiming they lied about the dangers and contagious nature of the virus. The COVID-19 virus originated in China.

“COVID-19 has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption, and human suffering,” Schmitt said in a statement in April 2020. “In Missouri, the impact of the virus is very real — thousands have been infected and many have died, families have been separated from dying loved ones, small businesses are shuttering their doors, and those living paycheck to paycheck are struggling to put food on their table.”

Yet in his lawsuit against Lee’s Summit, Schmitt’s office argued that “COVID-19 is not a serious health risk for the vast majority of the population — and especially for young adults and children.”

A federal judge this year dismissed Schmitt’s lawsuit against the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party, saying he has no jurisdiction over foreign governments.

Schmitt’s office withdrew its own complaint against the Lee’s Summit School District in March. The district last month said that Schmitt’s office withdrew his complaint to avoid “having to prosecute his meritless claims.”

The district then responded with its counterclaim, asking the judge to decide whether Schmitt can impose his will on school districts in contravention of public health orders, telling the judge: “The Court should not be fooled by Schmitt’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ approach.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
Steve Vockrodt is the former investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
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