FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky judge temporarily blocked new Republican-backed laws that threatened to invalidate executive orders by the Democratic governor to slow the spread of COVID-19, saying the measures could create an atmosphere of chaos in the state's pandemic response.
Gov. Andy Beshear's administration made a “strong case” that the laws are likely to “undermine, or even cripple,” public health measures needed to protect Kentuckians from the pandemic, Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said in his ruling.
The judge blocked three laws pending more proceedings in the high-stakes case. His ruling came as pandemic-related restrictions ordered by Beshear were about to expire under one of the measures.
Beshear, who challenged the laws soon after his vetoes of them were overridden, said he appreciated the judge's order and signaled that he's had discussions with lawmakers.
“The ability to act and react quickly is necessary in our war against this ever-changing and mutating virus,” the governor said in a statement. "Recently, we have been having productive conversations on a wide range of topics with legislative leaders. We will attempt to work with them on this and other topics now and in the future.”
Leaders in the GOP-dominated House and Senate didn't immediately comment on Shepherd's ruling.
The spreading virus has resulted in more than 407,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 4,700 virus-related deaths in Kentucky.
GOP lawmakers argue the governor overreached and acted unilaterally with coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals. The governor maintains the steps he took to limit activity during the pandemic have saved lives, but he has rolled back some orders as COVID-19 cases have declined.
As the case continues, the judge said he expects the governor to relax his virus restrictions “as conditions warrant and the public health concerns abate.”
“But the court believes those decisions should be made based on medical and scientific evidence, not on arbitrary deadlines imposed by statutes irrespective of the spread of the virus,” he said.
One of the blocked laws would allow Kentucky businesses and schools to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from Beshear’s administration or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — whichever standard is least restrictive.
Another law being challenged would limit the governor's executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. It applies to orders restricting schools, businesses and religious gatherings or imposing mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.
Under the 30-day timeline, the governor’s pandemic-related executive orders were about to expire.
The 30-day limit raises the question of whether the legislature “crossed the line" into "micro-managing” the governor's actions, the judge said.
Allowing the laws to take effect would “effectively wipe out” all of the executive orders, regulations and public health rules in effect in the absence of legislative approval, he said.
“This would result in a chaotic legal environment in which everyone would make their own rules, and state and local health officials would be barred from any kind of effective enforcement of statewide standards and rules,” Shepherd said.
The judge cited several constitutional issues surrounding the laws, including separation of powers.
The other new law being challenged by Beshear would give legislative committees more oversight and control over the governor’s emergency administrative regulations.
It’s the latest round of court fights over Beshear’s response to the pandemic. Last year, Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to issue coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.