A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules.
The order comes after a monthslong legal dispute between parents, a disability rights organization and Texas officials over whether the state was violating the 1990 law, known as the ADA, by not allowing school districts to require masks. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order.
“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel said. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”
The judge said the governor’s order impedes children with disabilities from the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled.
The advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. It states that the governor’s order and the TEA’s enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.
Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the court found that Texas is not above federal law and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.
“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” Rogers said.
Rogers said she doesn’t rule out the state appealing the decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the state has done so before, most recently with its new law that bans abortions after as early as six weeks.
In court documents, Ryan Kercher, the attorney representing the state, argued that neither the attorney general nor the state education agency were enforcing the executive order so they couldn’t be sued.
But Disability Rights Texas attorneys said the three were enforcing the order and provided the court with a letter that the TEA sent to the attorney general’s office. In it, the education agency listed school districts that appeared to be operating in violation of the governor’s order. The plaintiffs also noted how Paxton sued several school districts over requiring masks and sent “threatening” letters to districts telling them that they were violating the order.
This isn’t the first time state attorneys argued that Paxton and Abbott didn’t actually enforce the law. In an August lawsuit against the state over the mask order, Paxton made the same argument and indicated that it was up to local county prosecutors to enforce the order.
See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Judge Yeakel’s ruling. As the story notes, the US Department of Education is also doing an investigation into Texas’ mask mandate ban; it’s not clear to me what effect this ruling, if it stands, could have on that. Also as the story notes, Paxton had filed multiple lawsuits against school districts that had mask mandates, getting most if not all of them to stop. We’ll see what happens next with that.
I do expect the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, and why wouldn’t they? The Fifth Circuit gives them everything they ask for pretty much all of the time, whatever the facts or merits of the case in question. This is still a significant ruling, and we should always take the opportunity to revel in any defeat suffered by Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. May this be the start of a very long losing streak. The DMN and the Chron have more.