FRANKFORT, Ky. (FOX19) - Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID-19 restrictions can stay in place, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday, striking down a lower court’s ruling in favor of three Boone County businesses who challenged them.
The 103-page decision settles, at least for now, whether Beshear had the authority to issue orders closing businesses, limiting customers inside restaurants and requiring masks to be worn.
The northern Kentucky businesses who sued earlier this year are Florence Speedway in Walton, Ridgeway Properties, LLC d/b/a Beans Café & Bakery in Dry Ridge and Little Links to Learning in Fort Wright.
Gov. Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron each submitted opposing briefs in the case to the state’s top court.
The governor’s lawyers argued the orders saved thousands of lives and Beshear has the constitutional authority to invoke emergency powers during a pandemic.
Cameron contended Beshear “created a new legal code” by issuing more than 150 executive orders and guidance documents in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. He argued the governor’s actions are unconstitutional and violate the Kentucky Constitution, saying the orders exercise “absolute and arbitrary government power.”
Speaking at a news conference Thursday morning, Gov. Beshear expressed relief and gratitude to the state’s top court, calling it a very good decision that saves lives.
Taking away his ability to impose health orders meant to protect the public, he said, would have overturned “every single safeguard” put into place to try to keep the novel virus from spreading.
The decision comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are increasing in every single Kentucky community and rising at an alarming rate, he noted.
“This gives us the opportunity to do what needs to be done. We are seeing some of the states around us, Ohio and Indiana, now putting in some of the same restrictions that we did and were challenged and upheld."
Politics, he added, has no place in something like this because the virus doesn’t care about political affiliations.
“We know what the law is. It’s clear and so now let’s all support the things that protect one another," Beshear said.
“This ruling gives us the chance and an opportunity to get this virus back under control but that won’t happen unless we open our eyes, our ears and our hearts. We’ve seen over the past several weeks that COVID-19 is spreading at a rapid rate and the last thing we ought to be doing is fight each other to overturn the safeguards every other public official says we should put into place.”
He urged Kentuckians to be resilient and to continue to set a good example by following the guidelines and serve as an example for others. He also urged those who may be tired and slipping to “step it back up.”
The attorneys representing the northern Kentucky businesses who sued over the governor’s restrictions are Chris Wiest, Tom Bruns and Bob Winter. They argued that only state lawmakers could impose the restrictions, not the governor.
“While the Kentucky Supreme Court held that one of the Governor’s orders was unconstitutional (which has since been changed), they largely upheld the remaining provisions. It’s an unfortunate result and one we disagree with,” Wiest said in a statement to FOX19 NOW.
“The legislature will meet in January. It now falls squarely to them to deal with. Our efforts in the federal courts will continue.”
The Republican-controlled legislature is planning new bills to limit the governor’s emergency powers during its session early next year.
Beshear said Thursday the decisions he is making are about saving lives, not politics, and there is light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine out there next year that is 90% effective.
“Something like this and on this scale does take the ability of a strong executive branch to have the right type of response," he said, “and I think the Supreme Court recognized that."
A spokesman for the Kentucky GOP says the party disagrees with the court’s ruling.
"It is a shame they sided with the Governor. He refuses to work with lawmakers and statewide constitutional officers. We’re looking forward to upcoming legislative efforts to reexamine the governor’s unilateral use of emergency executive powers,” Kentucky GOP spokesman Mike Lonergan said.
House Democratic leaders say they applaud the ruling and the justices for making it clear the governor has the authority to protect Kentuckians during an emergency.
“At the same time, we’re still dismayed that we even have to say that. It is galling that the attorney general, our chief law enforcement officer, does not see the law the same way and that he sought action that would have needlessly put lives in danger,” read a statement from House Democratic leaders Joni Jenkins, Derrick Graham and Angie Hatton.
Beshear said he wants to get out of the restrictions as much as anyone else and get back to focusing on other issues day-to-day such as public healthcare and education.
Federal courts have blocked other Beshear orders, including bans on travel and religious gatherings.
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