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Judge dismisses parents’ lawsuit over limits to schools’ pandemic response

Lawsuit by parents, Concerned Coalition challenged constitutionality of measures that curbed pandemic restrictions in schools

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Eighth grade students and their teacher wear masks at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Jan. 10, 2022.

Eighth grade students and their teacher wear masks during their dual language class at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Jan. 10, 2022. A 3rd District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit by parents that challenged the constitutionality of laws passed by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that limit pandemic restrictions, like mask orders, which they claimed hinders Utah public schools’ ability to safely fulfill children’s right to a free public education.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

A 3rd District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit by parents that challenged the constitutionality of laws passed by the Utah Legislature and signed into law by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that limited pandemic restrictions such as mask orders, which they claimed hindered Utah public schools’ ability to safely fulfill children’s rights to a free public education.

Judge Vernice Trease, in an 18-page decision, ruled that the lawsuit had been rendered moot by subsequent events and because the plaintiffs had no standing.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2021, named Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Salt Lake County as defendants. An amended complaint named only Cox and Salt Lake County.

The plaintiffs included parents whose children have disabilities or are otherwise at risk, along with the Concerned Coalition, which pressed for health practices such as masking to help ensure students’ safe return to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit argued that laws preventing local schools from adopting mask requirements violated the Utah Constitution, restricted access to a free, appropriate public education as guaranteed under Article X of the Utah Constitution, deprived students of due process and equal protection, and caused harm to vulnerable individuals and families.

With respect to claims against the county, Trease ruled that when the Salt Lake County Council voted to uphold a 2022 order that mandated masks in schools, it rendered the plaintiffs’ claims against the county moot.

“Indeed, plaintiffs subsequently stated that they were withdrawing their claims against the county. The county also established that plaintiffs’ claims against the county are moot because the requested relief was not available and would not affect plaintiffs’ rights or redress their injuries,” Trease wrote.

When the plaintiffs clarified they were only seeking to have statutes declared unconstitutional, “that showed the plaintiffs are not actually seeking relief from the county,” the ruling states.

As for Cox, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims were “largely rendered moot by the 2022 order and when plaintiffs clarified that they were seeking a remedy that would not redress their injuries or otherwise affect plaintiffs’ rights.”

The judge’s ruling states that COVID-19 is a serious, highly transmissible virus “that has significantly impacted our lives as various protective measures have been implemented and removed. The parties do not dispute that universal masking is an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Plaintiffs claim that when the Legislature and the council terminated the existing mask mandate in schools in the county, that prevented plaintiffs from attending school in person. They brought this action to remedy the situation. However, plaintiffs’ claims must be dismissed because their claims have been rendered moot by subsequent events and because plaintiffs lack standing.”

One of the Utah Legislature’s first actions during its 2022 general session was to pass legislation that clamped down on local COVID-19 orders in Salt Lake and Summit counties. However, neither lawmakers nor the Utah Legislature were defendants in the lawsuit and Trease’s ruling does not address those events.

Responding to the ruling, the Concerned Coalition expressed disappointment in Trease’s decision.

“We remain confident in the merits of our position and will continue to explore all legal avenues. Our legal action is vital in checking the overreach of elected leaders and restoring the appropriate powers of local public health and educational institutions. Despite the current lull in Utah COVID-19 infections, we firmly believe state and local government leaders violated the state constitution and placed vulnerable children in protected classes at unnecessary risk at times where unprecedented public health risk was present in our communities.

“This ruling is especially concerning against a backdrop where mitigation efforts have been dismantled in Utah and across the country, leaving vulnerable populations at risk. Without a check on legislative overreach, local authorities will be unable to adequately respond to future public health emergencies,” the group’s statement said.