Kentucky Supreme Court rejects Beshear’s claim that legislature wrongly curbed his emergency powers

By Kentucky Lantern Staff

Citing legislative immunity, the Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously rejected Gov. Andy Beshear’s claim that the legislature acted unconstitutionally when it curbed his emergency powers in 2021.

The court ruled that the state Constitution grants lawmakers immunity from such lawsuits.

The legislation in question was a response to Beshear’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Among other curbs, the legislature limited states of emergency to 30 days unless extended  by the General Assembly and ended several public-health orders, including a mandate to mask in many public places.

Writing for his colleagues, outgoing Justice John D. Minton, Jr. called the case “an example of the need for legislative immunity.”

“The Governor sued members of the legislature while the legislature was in session. And the Franklin Circuit Court enjoined enforcement of the challenged legislation during the same legislative session. Then, when vetoing related legislation, the Governor stated that legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic ‘directly violates a temporary injunction entered by the Franklin Circuit Court against the General Assembly itself, which could subject the body to a contempt of court citation.’ The message was clear: members of the legislature may have been held in contempt of court if they overrode the Governor’s veto of HB 192.61 This type of inter-branch power struggle is precisely what legislative immunity seeks to prevent.

“The fact that this action involves a disagreement between political branches over their respective powers encourages granting legislative immunity, not making a broad exception to it.”

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd had issued a temporary injunction blocking the the legislature’s curbs on the governor’s  powers while the case was litigated.

Robert Stivers, Kentucky Senate president
 Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers

The Supreme Court reversed Shepherd’s decision and directed that all claims be dismissed against Senate President Robert Stivers, Speaker David Osborne and the Legislative Research Commission.

Stivers applauded the ruling and released the following statement: “Today’s unanimous decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court is a monumental victory for the legislative branch and the residents of Kentucky who send 138 representatives to Frankfort to deliberate, debate and make public policy decisions on their behalf. This sends another message that the governor has defined and limited powers and it reaffirms the legislature’s singular authority to make laws and to a large degree limits the scope of the governor’s power and authority.

“This resounding 7-0 ruling sends a strong and clear message that the Constitution of Kentucky is bigger than any one person or the current General Assembly. It is a ruling that will matter far beyond my time as Senate president or Andy Beshear’s time as governor. I applaud the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision.”

Read the opinion here.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Kentucky Supreme Court chambers. (Getty Images)