Judge hears arguments in showdown between Beshear, lawmakers

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A temporary court order blocking a new Kentucky law restricting the governor's authority to combat COVID-19 was being extended Thursday, as a judge reviews the constitutional showdown between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

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After a four-hour hearing, Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said he would extend the restraining order and hopes to rule within about 10 days on competing motions. One motion seeks an injunction blocking GOP-backed laws reining in Beshear's executive powers in times of emergency. Another motion seeks to dissolve the order in place against one of the measures.

The restraining order is currently blocking a measure that would allow Kentucky businesses and schools to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from Beshear's administration or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — whichever standard is least restrictive.

Another new law being challenged by Beshear would limit his executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. It applies to orders restricting schools, businesses and religious gatherings or imposing mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.

Under that measure's 30-day timeline, the governor’s current pandemic-related executive orders are set to expire in early March, said his general counsel, Amy Cubbage.

Shepherd said he wants to rule before then, and he asked lawyers to provide him a list of all executive orders and emergency regulations that would expire under measures being challenged.

The judge continued to urge the competing sides to find “common ground” to resolve the dispute, which he said is rooted in a “communications gap.”

“It has almost universally, up until recently, been the case that public health issues have been dealt with in a nonpartisan way,” Shepherd said.

The high-stakes case revolves around two separate sets of issues, the judge said. One is the effect the new laws would have on the state’s response to the pandemic, he said.

“The urgent need to have an effective response to a pandemic is an extremely important consideration for the court,” the judge said.

The other issue revolves around the balance of power in state government and whether Beshear’s coronavirus-related orders put “an undue burden on certain segments of the public,” Shepherd said.

“In this case, we have the intersection of these political questions with regard to the distribution of powers of government, that have come head on in conflict with the public health response to a pandemic,” he said.

GOP legislators argue the governor overreached with restrictions on businesses and individuals. The governor maintains the steps he took to limit activity during the pandemic have saved lives.

Beshear sued immediately, seeking a court order striking down the new laws after the GOP-dominated legislature voted to override his vetoes of the measures.

Kentucky's public health commissioner, Dr. Steven Stack, testified at Tuesday's hearing that the measures would “functionally render me powerless” in combating the ongoing pandemic.

Defending the Beshear administration's response to the public health crisis, Stack said: "There are clearly things we wish could have been done differently or we had more options. But I do assert we tried in good faith to keep the most number of people safe in Kentucky.”

The other new law being challenged by Beshear would give legislative committees more oversight and control over the governor’s emergency administrative regulations.

It’s the latest round of court fights over Beshear’s response to the pandemic. Last year, Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to issue coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.