Missouri AG Schmitt dropped school mask lawsuits. Lee’s Summit district demands a ruling

Jeff Roberson/AP file photo

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has dismissed dozens of lawsuits he filed against school districts over COVID rules during the height of the pandemic.

But the Lee’s Summit district has refused to end its case quietly.

Lee’s Summit is pushing for a court ruling declaring that Schmitt did not have the authority to demand schools remove their mask mandates. The Republican attorney general, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last month, sued Lee’s Summit and more than 40 other districts last January, aiming to stop schools from enforcing their mitigation measures.

Schmitt this past spring dropped the bulk of the lawsuits after school districts lifted their mandates as COVID cases plummeted. In March, he said that 42 districts had ended their mask directives and framed the lawsuits as a victory, even though many didn’t result in court decisions against districts.

But Lee’s Summit instead has filed a counterclaim, asking for Jackson County Judge Marco Roldan to issue a judgment in favor of the school district and against Schmitt. Joseph Hatley, attorney for the district, in court documents called Schmitt’s actions an “abuse of his office,” arguing that the Missouri attorney general “has no authority to order public school districts to change their internal operations.”

Hatley argued that Schmitt’s dismissal of other lawsuits allowed him to avoid prosecuting his claims. And that the court “should not be fooled by Schmitt’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ approach.”

The district is asking the court to “prevent Schmitt and his successors from intruding into the affairs” of public school districts, arguing that the attorney general’s “bullying” toward schools “poses a danger to the statutory balance of authority between elected state and local officials.”

Schmitt in a filing last week asked the judge to drop Lee’s Summit’s counterclaim, previously calling it a “frivolous request in a dismissed case.” His attorneys argued in court documents that Schmitt’s actions — demanding in letters last December that districts drop their mitigation rules — did not injure Lee’s Summit, and that the case is moot now that the district no longer has a mask mandate.

Schmitt last winter called school districts’ mitigation measures illegal following a court ruling that stripped local health authorities of their powers to issue disease-control measures.

“We had every right and responsibility to stand up for parents and children, and we’re confident that the Court will agree with us,” Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle said in an email to The Star.

But the Lee’s Summit district asserts that districts still face a public health threat, from COVID-19, as well as the flu and RSV — “another such virus causing widespread student or staff absences.” And districts may need to take mitigation measures in the future.

“Schmitt has never changed his position or withdrawn his prior orders,” Hatley said in court documents. “Instead, he is doubling down — and gaslighting the District for suggesting that it remains under threat or in dispute with Schmitt.”

Schmitt’s legal counsel Jay Atkins disagreed, arguing in court documents that, “the COVID-19 pandemic was a once-in-a generation event that triggered unprecedented restrictions on individual liberty. And unprecedented events are, by definition, not of a kind ‘likely’ to recur at any time in the foreseeable future.”

The district argued that Schmitt’s election to the U.S. Senate “does not remove the threat” from his office’s “still-pending orders,” instructing districts last winter to remove all mask mandates and quarantine rules. Hatley said unless Schmitt or his successor formally rescind those December letters, “the District remains under their cloud.”

Schmitt argued that asserting the “government’s viewpoint in litigation,” including through such letters, “is thus among the core functions of an attorney general.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson last month appointed Andrew Bailey, one of his top advisors, as the state’s next attorney general.

Schmitt largely centered his campaign on his lawsuits. He also unsuccessfully tried to sue China for the COVID-19 pandemic. And he filed legal actions against the federal government and the Biden administration over a host of policies, from vaccine mandates to immigration.

The attorney general office’s budget is $500,000 smaller than Schmitt wanted for this upcoming year, a cut requested by both legislative chambers in response to his decision to sue the dozens of school districts over their mask mandates.

The money would have been used to help Schmitt hire five more attorneys for the Office of Solicitor General, which defends the state in lawsuits over constitutional issues.