By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Thursday released a written ruling that said Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his constitutional authority in a July 30 executive order that sought to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
The final judgment expounded on a verbal ruling that Cooper announced during a hearing last Friday and set the stage for an appeal by the DeSantis administration in the high-profile lawsuit. Cooper issued an injunction barring the state Department of Education, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the State Board of Education from enforcing DeSantis’ order.
DeSantis’ executive order triggered a state Department of Health rule that, in part, said parents must be able to opt out of student mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the executive order, DeSantis cited a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that deals with parents’ right to control health and educational decisions for their children.
But Cooper wrote that the law “expressly gives governmental entities, such as school boards, the right to adopt policies regarding health care and education of children in schools, even if the policies affect a parents’ rights to make decisions in these areas.”
Cooper also ruled that Corcoran and the Department of Education violated the law by imposing financial penalties on districts that enact mask mandates without giving the districts due process.
“The law of Florida does not permit the defendants to punish school boards, its members, or officials for adopting face mask mandates with no parental opt-outs if the schools boards have been denied their due process rights under the Parents’ Bill of Rights to show that this policy is reasonable and meets the requirements of the statute,” Cooper wrote.
In addition, Cooper addressed an issue about whether districts’ mask mandates are in accordance with part of the law that says government should only take actions that usurp parental rights if they are “reasonable and necessary” to achieve a compelling state interest.
“By passing the Parents’ Bill of Rights, the Florida Legislature necessarily recognized the importance of parental rights. But it also recognized that parents’ rights are not immune to some reasonable limitation depending upon safety and reasonableness and compelling state need regarding health care or condition of the child,” Cooper wrote.
An introductory part of Cooper’s ruling pointed to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus posing “a higher risk of infection to children than did the previous form of COVID.”
As of Thursday, 13 school districts, representing more than half of the state’s students, have moved forward with student mask mandates that allow exceptions only when parents present doctors’ notes. Those districts are Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Hillsborough, Duval, Leon, Brevard, Indian River, Sarasota, Lee and Volusia.
Corcoran on Monday issued a news release saying the Department of Education had begun withholding funds from the Alachua and Broward districts in amounts equal to school board members’ monthly salaries. The department later told The News Service of Florida that it began withholding the funds on Thursday, before Cooper issued his verbal ruling.
DeSantis has maintained that he is confident that the 1st District Court of Appeal will overturn Cooper’s ruling. Also, the state generally receives stays of rulings when it files appeals — which effectively means Cooper’s ruling would be put on hold while an appeal moves forward.
“I think it (Cooper’s decision) is going to be something that’s going to be very vulnerable to being overruled,” the governor said during an appearance Wednesday.
Another Leon County circuit judge last year ruled against DeSantis and Corcoran in a lawsuit challenging a state move to require school campuses to be open during the pandemic. The 1st District Court of Appeal ultimately reversed the circuit judge’s decision and sided with DeSantis.