By John Haughey
The Center Square
August 28, 2021
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper has essentially upheld a newly-adopted Florida parental rights bill in ruling that Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the state constitution – as well as that law – when he issued an executive order allowing parents to ignore school district mask mandates
In a ruling watched closely across the country, Cooper during a two-hour hearing Friday explained his reasoning in ruling that the governor overstepped his authority when he signed his June 30 executive order based on House Bill 1059, the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, adopted by lawmakers during the 2021 legislative session.
HB 1059 requires districts and agencies cede to parents in decisions regarding their children. Under the law, the state is not allowed to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Cooper cited that last sentence in issuing his ruling.
“My ruling in this case, if you want to put it in one sentence is, I am enforcing the bill passed by the Legislature and requiring that anyone who uses that bill to follow all provisions and no part of the provisions,” Cooper said, noting DeSantis’ executive order and subsequent directives from the state’s Department of Education (DOE) did not include the last sentence.
Cooper said DOE can enforce HB 1059, but must “do so in accordance with the terms of the law” and ruled that school boards can mask mandates as long as they “demonstrate its reasonableness and the other factors in the law.”
“I am not saying yes or no to any particular policy,” he said. “This orphan statute (HB 1059) does not support a statewide order or any action interfering with the constitutionally provided authority of local school districts to provide for the safety and health of children, based on the unique facts on the ground.”
Cooper’s ruling follows a four-day trial that concluded in his Tallahassee courtroom Thursday that deliberated a lawsuit filed by parents from seven counties asking him to nix DeSantis’ executive order and allow school boards to manage the pandemic in local schools.
Plaintiffs, nine couples and individual parents with children younger than 12 who attend school in Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Pinellas counties, maintained DeSantis’ order violates districts’ authority under the state constitution, denies due process and is “arbitrary and capricious.”
Cooper’s ruling also prevents the state’s Board of Education (BOE) from taking action against school boards that defined the executive order.
On Aug. 17, the BOE agreed the Alachua and Broward school boards violated the order and HB 1059 by imposing mask mandates and should be docked state funding the equivalent of school board/administrator salaries. In addition, some officials could be removed from posts.
However, the number of school boards defying DeSantis and the BOE since the trial began Monday doubled to more than 10. As of Friday, nearly half of Florida’s 2.9 million K-12 students were attending schools that require masks.
The DeSantis administration is expected to file an appeal to stay Cooper’s order. The governor himself said on Wednesday that he expected the loser in the case to appeal.
“Good,” he said repeated Thursday. “I think we obviously need to have this stuff crystallized.”
DeSantis said Florida will “obviously” appeal any ruling that dilutes HB 1059.,
“We feel the Legislature really made a big statement with their parental bill of rights,” DeSantis said.