Politics

Gov. Abbott Dealt A Pair Of Legal Blows As He Fights Mask, Vaccine Mandates On Multiple Fronts

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday evening denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to stay temporary restraining orders blocking the governor’s directive. At around the same time, the Texas Fourth Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against Abbott on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County over their mask mandate in schools.

Gov. Greg Abbott adjusts his mask after giving an update on the categories of medical surge facilities at a press conference at the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

Legal battles over precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are rolling on across Texas.

The Texas Supreme Court Thursday denied a request from Attorney General Ken Paxton to undo a Travis County judge’s temporary restraining orders that allow some counties and school districts to have mask mandates. In its ruling, the court said Paxton did not have a compelling reason to bypass the appeals process and go straight to the high court.

“That may be only a temporary reprieve for Austin; the state can now ask the Austin-based court of appeals for the same relief and go back to the Supreme Court if they lose,” UT law professor Steven Vladeck told KUT. “But it's a reprieve nonetheless.”

In a statement, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who filed one of the cases that prompted Paxton’s unsuccessful high court challenge — called the ruling “an important decision.”

“Our lawsuit against the Governor will continue, and we'll keep giving all we've got to ensure local officials and school districts can protect our students and immunocompromised,” Menefee said. “I'm hopeful today's decision also means the Texas Supreme Court is taking a hard look at whether Governor Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act and needs to be reined in.”

At around the same time, the Texas 4th Court of Appeals upheld a temporary order that allows mask mandates in schools in Bexar County.

The appeals decision bars the state from enforcing an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banning mandates.

The rulings are a blow for Abbott, who issued the executive order in July forbidding schools, cities, or counties from issuing mask or vaccine mandates.

"The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates," The Republican said in a statement at the time.

As cases began to surge in recent weeks, local governments fought back. They filed for temporary restraining orders to allow them to issue mandates. The state Attorney General's office said more than 50 local school districts are now requiring masks in Texas.

Abbott — who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week — continues to try to stop them.

On Thursday, the state Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio Independent School district over its mandatory vaccination policy for staff and faculty.

Federal Challenges

The first federal lawsuit against Abbott's executive order was also filed this week.

On Tuesday, Disability Rights Texas sued Abbott, arguing his ban on mask mandates violates protections for people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The nonprofit said the students are at particular risk of COVID-19 because they are too young to get vaccinated.

The mask mandate battle is being fought in multiple states with Republican governors, including Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee.

On Wednesday, President Biden said his administration will not sit by as governors try to block schools from implementing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Democrat said Wednesday he’s directing the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to take steps to protect students.

“This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action if appropriate against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators,” Biden said.

Cardona sent Abbott a letter saying his mask mandate ban conflicts with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and may violate federal guidelines.

KUT contributed to this report. Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto.

A version of this story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio. TPR was founded by and is supported by its community. If you value its commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

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