Gov. Abbott, school districts face off in court over mask mandates

The hearing which started Monday is a request by several school districts and education advocates to put a restraining order on Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.  

Testimony on Tuesday concluded with the superintendent of Northside ISD Brian Woods, who was asked about his mask mandate by attorney David Thompson.

"Dr. Woods when you decided to recommend, your board decided to adopt a mask requirement for the 2021-22 school year were  you simply being civilly disobedient, or did you believe you have a good faith statutory authority to make that decision for your district?" Thompson asked.

"I do believe that I have a statutory authority, I also believe I got a moral and ethical duty to our students and staff," Woods said.

Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula challenged the superintendent's response. "You are not telling the court you have unlimited authority to govern your school district, correct?" she asked, to which Woods replied "That is not what I said, correct."

The focus of the online hearing before Judge Catherine Mauzy is on the powers given to the Governor by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.  In closing arguments, attorney David Campbell said "It is not an exaggeration to say the Governor's view of the Texas Disaster Act essentially asks this court to declare him a constitutional dictator in Texas. And that is not the law."

Campbell argued that the act was drafted to make the governor work with local governments not against them.

"The Texas Disaster Act is a woven tapestry of how Texas responds to disasters and it does not place all power into the hands of the governor, instead it provides a scheme of cooperation between the governor and local leaders," he said.

In her closing, Kimberly Gdula noted opinions were different when the viral outbreak first hit. "This is the same authority that allowed the governor, earlier to mandate that masks be worn in certain situations, something that no body, no plaintiff or intervenor, is challenging the governors authority to do, and again because the Texas Supreme Court has already rejected the argument that only executive orders designed to alleviate the threat are allowed under the Texas Disaster Act. It's clear the governor does have the authority make executive orders like GA-38."

The order, the judge was told, does not prevent anyone from urging the use of a mask and, according to Gdula, is the governor's recognition that people know how to fight COVID-19. However, school officials claim their lawsuit is being done to show the law is on their side; which Gdula described in a much different way.

"This kind of disregard for the rule of law is a threat to democracy in normal circumstances, but when Texas is under a state of declared disaster, that disregard is particularly dangerous," she said.

A ruling from the court is expected before the end of the week.

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