Florida appeals court appears to side with state in school mask case


Some schools are pushing ahead with mask mandates after the state threatened their funding. - ADOBE
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  • Some schools are pushing ahead with mask mandates after the state threatened their funding.

An appeals court Wednesday said a group of parents likely do not have legal standing to challenge an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis about school mask mandates and indicated it disagrees with a circuit judge who backed the parents in the case.

The 1st District Court of Appeal issued a five-page document that explained a decision last month to place a stay on a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper. That ruling, which drew widespread attention, said DeSantis overstepped his legal authority in the July 30 executive order seeking to block mask requirements.

The stay has put Cooper’s ruling on hold while an appeal by the DeSantis administration moves forward.

But the document Wednesday, while not a final decision, indicated the Tallahassee-based appeals court agrees with the DeSantis administration on key issues. Among them is that the parents lacked standing to file the challenge.

The appeals court said, in part, that the parents challenged DeSantis’ alleged “usurpation” of authority from county school boards and the Florida Department of Health.

“The appellees (plaintiffs) are a group of parents and public-school students who suffered no injury from any alleged ‘usurpation’ of authority, so they did not appear to have established an injury in fact that could support standing,” the appeals court said.

Also, it said the parents “likely lack standing because the executive order did not appear to take any state action against them.”

In addition, the appeals court said the plaintiffs did not argue that the executive order violated a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” —- but said Cooper relied on the law in ruling against DeSantis and issuing an injunction against state education officials carrying out a ban on mask mandates.

“Despite the absence of any allegation that a state administrative actor was breaching —- or planning to breach —- the Parents’ Bill of Rights, the trial court still ordered the education defendants not to,” the appeals court said Wednesday. “That is, the trial court appeared to have awarded relief that was not requested, based on a theory that was not pleaded. It appeared to us, then, that the trial court issued an injunction that it did not have authority to issue, because the injunction was predicated on matters ‘wholly outside’ the appellees’ causes of action.”

When a three-judge panel of the appeals court put a stay on Cooper’s ruling Sept. 10, it issued only a one-page order. The document Wednesday was a follow-up to provide an explanation of the stay decision.

The parents from various parts of the state filed the lawsuit Aug. 6, about a week after DeSantis issued the executive order. Following the executive order, the Florida Department of Health issued a rule —- and later a revised rule —- that said parents should have the right to opt out of student mask requirements.

While DeSantis argues parents should be able to decide whether their children wear masks, some districts bucked the executive order and the Department of Health rules, only allowing students to forgo masks if they had documented medical reasons. That has led to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to pursue financial penalties against districts that didn’t comply.

In his Sept. 2 ruling in favor of the parents, Cooper said the Parents’ Bill of Rights “does not ban school board facemask mandates” and that the state’s move to impose a ban exceeded its authority.

“The statute expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding the health care of students (such as a facemask mandate) even if a parent disagrees with the policy,” Cooper wrote. “The statute requires only that the policy be reasonable, is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored and not otherwise served by a less restrictive means. The actions of the defendants do not pass constitutional muster because they seek to deprive the school boards in advance and without their right to show reasonableness of such a policy.”

Attorneys for the state and the parents filed a joint motion last week asking for “expedited” handling of the appeal. The court had not responded to the motion Wednesday, according to an online docket.

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