Will the Kentucky General Assembly Stand Up for Our Rights?

(AP Photo/Adam Beam)

As 2020 thankfully ends, for Kentuckians that means that the General Assembly will shortly be in session. Our state legislature is a part-time one, which is just the way the people in the Bluegrass State like it. Our state representatives and senators have other lives, and the pay for legislators does not allow them to be professionals at it. Legislators earn a salary of $188.22 per day, when the legislature is in session, along with a per diem expense allowance of $163.90. In even-numbered years, sessions may not last more than 60 legislative days, and cannot extend beyond April 15. In odd-numbered years, sessions may not last more than 30 legislative days, and cannot extend beyond March 30.

If you think, hey, that’s not much, until a constitutional amendment was passed by the voters in 2000, the legislature was restricted to meeting only once every two years.

We have previously mentioned Governor Andy Beshear’s (D-KY) dictatorial orders, and his refusal to involve the General Assembly.

Beshear was asked at Friday’s (July 10, 2020 — Editor) news conference on COVID-19 why he has not included the legislature in coming up with his orders. He said many state lawmakers refuse to wear masks and noted that 26 legislators in Mississippi have tested positive for the virus.

Though the Governor is supposedly very popular, and the public supposedly approve of his handling of COVID-19, the November elections increased Republican control over both chambers of the state legislature. The GOP increased their majority in the state Senate from 28-10 to 30-8, but, more importantly, in the state House of Representatives from 61-37 (with 2 vacancies) to 75-25. While the state Senate held a veto-proof Republican majority prior to the election, such was not the case in the state House; now, there is a veto-proof Republican majority in both chambers.

And so we come to this, from the Lexington Herald-Leader:

The legislature wants to curb Beshear’s executive powers. What does that look like?

By Daniel Desrochers | December 31, 2020 | 11:45 AM EST

After adding to their existing supermajorities in the Kentucky General Assembly in November, Republicans in Frankfort laid out a clear mission for the 2021 legislative session: scale back the executive powers of the governor of Kentucky.

“We’re going to refine,” said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, days after the election. “There’s no doubt that chief executives of any state or at the federal level need types of powers in an emergency. We all agree with that. What’s the extent and duration? How do you apply [it]?”

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican lawmakers have chafed at executive orders passed by Gov. Andy Beshear aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus. Some have attended rallies against the orders, others have spoken out in favor of lawsuits challenging them, nearly all have said there hasn’t been enough communication between the governor’s office and legislators.

In particular, they’ve decried now-expired orders that temporarily banned all gatherings, including church services, and stopped private schools from holding in-person classes.

There’s more at the original.

Technically, Mr Desrochers, the article author, is incorrect: the executive order which prohibited private schools from holding in-person classes does not expire until Sunday, January 3rd, though, as the United States Supreme Court noted, the order would expire at the normal end of the Christmas break for schools.¹

While I suggested that the Governor would renew his school closure order, but wait until January 2 to do so, to give the private religious schools little time to appeal it, renewing that order would only anger the legislature. However, the Herald-Leader reported, yesterday, that “Kentucky has 7th-highest day for new COVID-19 cases. Positivity rate back above 9%.

Wednesday’s tally of new cases is the seventh-highest single-day increase the state has reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

In a written update, Beshear noted the mid-week increase was “higher than it has been for a number of days,” adding, “The progress we have made is fragile.”

If the Governor concludes that he has no chance of avoiding the restriction of his emergency powers, he might well simply issue the edicts, hoping to get away with them for another month.

Six bills restricting the Governor’s emergency powers have been pre-filed in the General Assembly, but one commonality is that all require the calling of a special session of the General Assembly if the Governor issues an emergency decree which lasts for longer than a month.²

Mr Desrochers again:

Beshear has indicated he would like no approach at all. He has criticized the effort to restrict his ability to issue executive orders, painting it as a potentially “catastrophic” attempt to limit his ability to deal with COVID-19, and one that would hamstring future governors if another unforeseen emergency arrives.

“I hope when they show up, making a lot of noise, let’s take a breath, let me get on through this and afterwards, have at it,” Beshear told the Herald-Leader when asked about the legislature’s effort to limit executive power. “Then we can go to court or anything else.”

“Then we can go to court,” huh? The Governor is an attorney, and he knows that going to court costs time and money. If he issues another of his decrees, appeals of those decrees could take months by the time they work their way through the courts. The state court challenge to his decrees were consolidated by the state Supreme Court, last July, when the Court issued a stay of the lower court injunctions against the Governor’s decrees, and then the Court decided it would hear oral arguments two months later. The United States Supreme Court, when it finally dismissed Daniel Christian Schools v Beshear, did so based on the practical expiration of the challenged executive order, but that Court sat on the case for two weeks, taking it to less than a week before Christmas break began.³

But the General Assembly must do more than just time limit the Governor’s emergency powers. It must also make clear that those emergency powers do not and cannot infringe on our constitutional rights. We are guaranteed, under the First Amendment, the right of peaceable assembly and free exercise of religion, both rights on which the Governor’s executive orders have restricted. The state does not and cannot have the power to somehow just suspend our rights, and the state legislature must make that clear, in terms that our partisan state Supreme Court cannot choose to ignore.

COVID-19 is serious, but the violation of our constitutional rights, by Governors across the country, is far, far worse.
¹ – In Danville Christian Academy v Beshear, the Supreme Court did just as I guessed it would: it let the case go moot.

On November 18, the Governor of Kentucky issued a temporary school-closing Order that effectively closes K–12 schools for in-person instruction until and through the upcoming holiday break, which starts Friday, December 18, for many Kentucky schools. All schools in Kentucky may reopen after the holiday break, on January 4. . . . .

The Governor’s school-closing Order effectively expires this week or shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that it will be renewed.

Uhhh, yes, there is! Governor Beshear has already ‘recommended’ that schools delay opening another week, until January 11th, and while he did not make that an order, quite possibly because he knew it would impact the case and it contradicted his own Court filing, he is now free to make it an order.

Under all of the circumstances, especially the timing and the impending expiration of the Order, we deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the Governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year.

In other words, the Court would entertain a new case, should the Governor issue another executive order, but all of that takes time, and money. With Christmas break about to start, the Governor could easily wait until Saturday, January 2nd, to issue another executive order.
² – Kentucky is one of only a few states in which the legislature cannot call itself back into session.
³ – Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissent, noted:

(I)n my judgment, it is unfair to deny relief on this ground since this timing is in no way the applicants’ fault. They filed this action on November 20, 2020, just two days after the issuance of the Governor’s executive order. And when, on November 29, the Sixth Circuit granted a stay of the order that would have allowed classes to resume, the applicants sought relief in this Court just two days later, on December 1. It is hard to see how they could have proceeded more expeditiously.

Justice Neil Gorsuch also dissented:

Nor should a Governor be able to evade judicial review by issuing short-term edicts and then urging us to overlook their problems only because one edict is about to expire while the next has yet to arrive. Come January 4, a new school semester will be about to start, and the Governor has expressly told us that he reserves the right to issue more decrees like these if and when religious schools try to resume holding classes. Rather than telling the parties to renew their fight in a month, asking the Sixth Circuit to resolve the case now, under accurate legal rules, would be better for everyone—from the parents who might have to miss work and stay home should decrees like these be upheld, to the state public health officials who might have to plan for school if they are not.

Courts have a broader equity at stake here too. In their struggle to respond to the current pandemic, executive officials have sometimes treated constitutional rights with suspicion. In Kentucky, state troopers seeking to enforce gubernatorial orders even reprimanded and recorded the license plate numbers of worshippers who attended an Easter church service, some of whom were merely sitting in their cars listening to the service over a loudspeaker.

Recently, this Court made clear it would no longer tolerate such departures from the Constitution. We did so in a case where the challenged edict had arguably expired, explaining that our action remained appropriate given the Governor’s claim that he could revive his unconstitutional decree anytime. That was the proper course there, as I believe it is here. I would not leave in place yet another potentially unconstitutional decree, even for the next few weeks.

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