Politics & Policy

Florida Judge Strikes Down DeSantis Mask-Mandate Ban

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a campaign rally at Pensacola International Airport in Pensacola, Fla., October 23, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

A Florida judge ruled Friday that Republican Governor Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority by prohibiting public institutions from instituting mask mandates, clearing the path for the state’s school districts to reimpose mask requirements for students and faculty.

In his opinion, Judge John Cooper argued that Florida law “does not support a statewide order, or any action interfering with the constitutionally provided authority of local school districts to provide for the safety and health of children, based on the unique facts on the ground in a particular county.”

He also suggested that the governor’s order contradicts medical and scientific consensus that masks are effective in curbing transmission of COVID.

“The evidence submitted by the defendant [the state] I think reflects a minority, perhaps even a small minority of medical and scientific opinion,” Cooper said.

While he acknowledged the CDC guidance could be revised, he said he believes that face mask policies are “reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion guidance in the country at this time.”

Invoking the constitutional principle of separation of powers, the judge alluded to a different bill passed by the state legislature, which DeSantis signed, affording school boards the power to act within their discretion to adopt a policy such as a mask mandate.

“The doctrine of separation of powers requires that the discretionary power exercised by the school board, cannot be interfered by the judiciary, or by the executive branch of government, and neither the judiciary nor the executive can substitute judgment for the school board’s power,” he continued.

The court’s decision comes after DeSantis battled with certain school districts in Florida that maintained their mask mandates in defiance of his executive order. Officials in the state government had considered penalizing districts that refused to comply with the directive by withholding state funds for salaries and potentially removing school officials.

Secretary of Education Cardona responded to DeSantis’ perceived threat in a letter, vowing to siphon off funds from the Biden-backed American Rescue Plan to reimburse teachers and officials who had their salaries suspended by the state of Florida for forcing children to wear masks in school.

Cardona later stated in an interview that the Biden administration would consider pursuing civil rights legal action, via a provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, against Republican-dominated states blocking schools from reimplementing mask mandates.

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