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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

St. Louis, Jackson counties seek to appeal ruling that has handcuffed Missouri health departments

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis. Schmitt held the press conference after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for most health care workers.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Schmitt, Missouri's attorney general, speaks to the media last month outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis. Schmitt held the press conference after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for most health care workers.

Saying that “chaos now reigns” in Missouri’s public health landscape, St. Louis and Jackson counties want permission to appeal a judge’s decision that stopped local health departments from issuing orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The counties late Monday filed a motion together to intervene in a Cole County case in which a judge said local health departments cannot issue orders or rules without the involvement of elected officials. The ruling occurred in a case in which St. Louis-area residents and business owners sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to challenge its ability to issue mask orders.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office often represents the interests of state agencies like DHSS in court, decided not to appeal the Cole County ruling. Instead, Schmitt used the ruling to claim mask mandates had been invalidated and referenced it in threats to school districts around the state.

Jackson and St. Louis counties said Schmitt “abdicated his duty” when he decided not to take up an appeal for DHSS and accused him of “instead electing to embark on a campaign of litigation terror against local governments and schools throughout the State.”

Schmitt is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in a bid to replace the retiring Roy Blunt. A spokesman for the attorney general was not immediately available for comment.

“In short, if the Court’s Judgment is not set aside, community spread of all communicable diseases will no doubt skyrocket in this State,” St. Louis and Jackson counties argued in their motion, “while mechanisms for combatting [sic] any such spread will have been dismantled.”

Monday’s intervention comes days after an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District wrote Schmitt a letter insisting the attorney general’s threats to Missouri school districts “not only lack legal effect — they are simply wrong,” because the Cole County case didn’t apply to schools.

Last week, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page called the Cole County litigation a “friendly fire case” between Schmitt and the St. Louis interests who filed the lawsuit. He said the county was evaluating its options.

“It is unprecedented, and it has created quite a problem for people in Missouri,” Page said. “We have a lot of legal experts looking at our strategies, and we will deploy whatever we can to try and do everything we can to protect the health and welfare in St. Louis County, because we know our public health orders have saved lives in St. Louis County and made a difference.”

Based at St. Louis Public Radio, Steve Vockrodt is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative editor. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveVockrodt

St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.

Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.

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