Officials and citizens question what an updated law means for orders-related orders like curfews and stay-at-home orders. As of last week, the updated Kansas Emergency Management Act is law. The updated statute allows the state legislature to revoke gubernatorial executive orders. It also allows counties to issue their own mandates. And allows citizens to seek relief from the courts for mandates issued as a result of a disaster declaration.

However, how that works in practice remains at question. 

“It’s been quite difficult to expect straight answers from most media outlets and nearly all politicians during the pandemic,” said James Franko, Kansas Policy Institute president. “Recent changes to emergency management laws are no different.” (KPI owns the Sentinel.)

County officials in the state’s most populous counties — Johnson and Sedgwick — reacted differently to the new law. Johnson County Commissioners issued a countywide mask mandate last week, while Sedgwick County Commissioners rescinded its mask mandates.

Johnson County Commissioners questioned what relief courts could provide a citizen or business owner aggrieved by new mandates. Meanwhile, Sedgwick County officials worried that the ability of individuals to seek judicial redress makes extending mask mandates too onerous.

“The new law is a dramatic change to the way executive and local health orders are issued,” Sam MacRoberts, litigation director for Kansas Justice Institute, said. “We’ve been arguing for a hearings process for quite some time, so these changes are potentially very exciting.”

MacRoberts and KJI defended constitutional freedoms through the pandemic, filing lawsuits on behalf of business owners in two counties. In Linn County, he filed a federal lawsuit after county officials adopted a policy that required businesses to maintain lists of customers for contact tracing. The county demanded that business owners provide to government tracers the lists when asked. MacRoberts likened the mandate to warrantless searches. The suit was dismissed after Linn County officials adopted a new policy that allowed businesses to request a warrant before producing customer lists.

In October, MacRoberts filed a suit on behalf of Douglas County bar owner. A county order required restaurants and businesses to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and to close by midnight. The suit alleges that business owners deserve a hearing when a COVID-related emergency order impacts their business. The lawsuit is pending.

When Osage County officials banned car parades last April, MacRoberts set a letter to the county warning that the ban violated constitutional rights. The county relented, allowing car parades, cruises and joy rides to continue.

“Time will tell if courts view the process as we do, but we look forward to advancing the law and continuing to defend Kansans from unreasonable health orders as we’ve done for the last year,” MacRoberts said.

Former Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, also an attorney, will join MacRoberts for a webinar to discuss the new law on April 5. Kansas Policy Institute, which owns KJI and the Sentinel, will host the free event.

“While we’re all sick of virtual meetings, this is a wonderful opportunity to get real answers to real questions,” Franko said.

The meeting is open to the public, but reservations are required. The webinar begins at 6:30 p.m. April 5. Franko says it will conclude prior to tip-off of the NCAA National Championship basketball game at 8 p.m.  The registration confirmation will include a link to the event and guests can submit questions in advance to hannah.nelson@kansaspolicy.org.

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