Settling a heated pandemic-era debate between Gov. Greg Abbott and leaders of the state’s major urban areas, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the governor had the legal authority to forbid local officials from requiring residents to wear masks in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As a contagious form of the virus raged in summer 2021 and threatened to push hospitals to the brink of their capacity limits, several local leaders put in place their own orders mandating that residents wear masks in certain public settings like businesses and schools — in defiance of Abbott’s own emergency order banning such masking rules.
City and county officials balked at Abbott using his emergency powers to block public health measures intended to respond to the emergency. But the court ruled that state law gives Abbott the authority to do just that.
“We hold that, during a declared disaster, the Governor has the lawful authority to prohibit local officials from imposing mask requirements in response to a contagious disease,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote in an opinion handed down Friday morning.
The court’s ruling is largely moot given that state lawmakers banned local governments this year from requiring masks, vaccines or business shutdowns should COVID-19 flare up again. Abbott let his emergency order — thought to be the last statewide emergency order in the entire country — expire in June after legislators passed the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1. The Biden administration also declared the end to the nation’s COVID-19 emergency in April.
The ruling, however, gives Abbott a significant win in the courts amid ongoing tension between Republican leaders in Austin and cities, typically managed by Democrats. And it answers a two-year-old debate: whether Abbott overstepped his authority by banning local leaders from enacting their own mask mandates during a public health emergency.
“The opinion is very clear that the decisions of the governor will prevail over decisions of all local authorities in any disaster,” said Doug Alexander, a lawyer representing Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in the case.
Abbott’s authority under the Texas Disaster Act — which grants the governor as well as the heads of cities and counties emergency powers in case of disasters like hurricanes and pandemics — did not give him the authority to stop locals from putting their own public health measures in place, they argued.
But justices were unswayed by those arguments. In an opinion written by Blacklock, the court ruled the state has the final say in how to manage an emergency response and “the orders of local officials about contagious-disease response must yield to conflicting orders at the state level, including the Governor’s orders during a declared disaster.”
See here and here for some background. This case was the consolidation of multiple lawsuits; you can see the opinions for all of them (also linked in the story) here, along with a concurring opinion in one of the cases. This ruling was ultimately not a surprise, as law professor Steve Vladeck predicted this outcome in that second link above. Among other things, what this means is that if in the year 2029 the next version of COVID is rampaging in the streets and Governor Lina Hidalgo orders a statewide mask mandate – which, to be fair, Abbott did do in the earliest days of COVID-19, before the madness truly set in, and which he could still do if this were to happen in, say, 2025 – then the wingnut counties won’t have any recourse against her. If the word of the Governor is final in an emergency, then that’s true regardless of who the Governor is. Be careful what you ask for, that’s all I’m saying.