On its flag, Missouri quotes Voltaire: Salus populi suprema lex esto, which, roughly translated, means let the welfare of the people be the highest law.
Those two tenets of what it means to be a Missourian are sort of in conflict these days, as the state competes with other red states to demonstrate how conservative they are, even if it kills people.
Incumbent Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a U.S. Senate hopeful, is using his office (as Josh Hawley did before him) to climb up the political ladder. But what Schmitt is doing will almost certainly result in people dying:
Following a ruling by a Cole County Circuit Court last week, Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Missouri, said the ruling determined mask mandates, quarantines and other public health orders are illegal.
He then sent letters to dozens of county health departments and school districts. The letters demanded that districts drop any mask mandates and other COVID-19 related protocols. Schmitt also warned of legal action if they ignored his requests.
That’s right: The state AG is sending cease and desist letters to local school boards and health departments, threatening them if they do not comply with his wishes.
There are three problems with this. The first is medical, because things are not great in Missouri right now:
The legal problem is that Schmitt is relying on a single ruling from a county court as proof that all other counties must hold to the same standard—even though not all counties and school districts were party to this specific lawsuit in Cole County, population 76,000. (Other school districts and counties are dealing with suits of their own, such as Saint Louis County.)
Some counties have gotten Schmitt’s letter and folded. Some have gone even farther than simply folding: Scott, New Madrid, Laclede, and Stoddard counties say because of the letter they have been “forced to cease all COVID-19 related work.”
Two counties even shared identical statements, saying:
“While this is a huge concern for our agency, we have no other options but to follow the orders of the Missouri Attorney General at this time,” the statements read. “We are awaiting additional direction from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), but have no timeline or expectations that this ruling will be changed.”
Which brings us to the third—and much more significant problem. As part of compliance with Schmitt’s letter, the local public health agencies in the above counties will stop “case investigation, contact tracing, quarantine orders, and public announcements of current cases/deaths, etc.”
Which means that we may well see case numbers in Missouri dropping—not because fewer people are infected with COVID, but because Eric Schmitt’s political ambitions are causing local governments to stop counting COVID infections as a way of bowing to his MAGA bona fides.
This abject refusal to acknowledge reality would be pathetic, if it weren’t so dangerous.
Thankfully, not every entity has caved to Schmitt. The school board in Lee’s Summit, a southern suburb of Kansas City, isn’t playing ball. The board’s attorney responded to Schmitt’s threatening letter by saying:
“While the District acknowledges that people have certain rights, it teaches its students the fundamental notion that rights must be balanced against the obligation to exercise them responsibly, and in a manner that does not violate the rights of others,” Joe Hatley, attorney with Spencer Fane, wrote to Schmitt. “Your invocation of ‘rights’ untethered to an obligation to exercise them responsibly invites lawlessness.”
The letter also cites precedent to why the lawyer thinks Schmitt’s demands have “no legal authority.”
Hatley wrote the ruling Schmitt is citing does not apply to school districts because schools were not involved in the lawsuit. He also points out that the Missouri Legislature granted local boards of education wide-ranging power to govern their own affairs.
Schmitt’s response was to double-down:
“You ignore well-settled precedent that the Attorney General enforces the law and protects the public from injury to the general welfare,” Schmitt wrote.
“Aside from the clear legal reasoning, it is my firm belief that health decisions and mask decisions are best left to parents, not school administrators or government bureaucrats,” Schmitt wrote.
Schmitt insisting that his demand letters are meant to protect the public from injury to the general welfare is exactly backward. The best you could say of it is that he views individual rights as so paramount that he is compelled to protect them even when they run counter to the general welfare.
But he goes farther than that, even. Because depriving Missourians of even the data about how bad COVID is in their locality has no upside for individual rights. It is a pure harm to the general welfare, with no concurrent benefit to anyone. Except for the gentleman running for Senate, of course.
Let the welfare of the attorney general’s political campaign be the highest law. And let the people of Missouri be damned.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly spelled “lex” as “lux” in the motto on Missouri’s flag.