Kansas Supreme Court schedules rare Saturday morning hearing to determine whether Republican-led panel can override governor’s ban on large church gatherings; prison staff deploy tear gas to end eight-hour standoff with inmates at Lansing after outbreak of infections
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TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court has scheduled arguments for Saturday morning to resolve a dispute between Gov. Laura Kelly and Republicans who oppose her order to limit the size of church gatherings ahead of Easter Sunday.
Kelly filed a lawsuit Thursday asking the state’s high court to intervene after the Republican-controlled Legislative Coordinating Council overturned her order on a 5-2 party line vote. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt also opposed the order and had directed police not to enforce it.
The governor said the order was necessary to protect the health and safety of all Kansans after learning of unspecified outbreaks related to church gatherings in the state. She defended the move in an appearance Thursday night on CNN.
"I live in a political world, and sometimes things just get political,“ Kelly said. ”That's what's happened here, and that's shameful. We have a pandemic here in the state of Kansas, just as we do all across the nation, all across the world. The fact that legislators would use this opportunity to make a political statement is incredible, very irresponsible, and I'm hoping that the Kansas Supreme Court will reaffirm our decision to tell our church congregations that they shouldn't meet in groups larger than 10."
Republicans said they support the public policy of discouraging in-person church services but didn’t want to criminalize the act of worship.
"It is not good policy to endorse an order the attorney general warns infringes on our constitutional rights and has told law enforcement they cannot enforce,“ said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita who is running for a U.S. Senate seat. ”Governor Kelly is playing politics with this lawsuit. She did not contact my office to negotiate any sort of compromise or discuss the possibility of decriminalizing the order. This is still America, where citizens’ voices are heard and our constitution matters.”
Kelly’s petition before the Supreme Court says the issue is a matter of life and death. Health officials in Kansas have recorded 50 deaths from the coronavirus, and 1,166 infections.
Under state law, the governor has the power during an emergency declaration to do what is necessary to secure safety and protection for the population. The Legislature before adjourning in March passed a resolution, which is not a law signed by the governor, giving the LCC authority to review and override her executive orders.
The Kansas Supreme Court isn’t being asked to consider whether Kelly’s executive order is a constitutional violation. Instead, the governor is arguing the Legislature can’t delegate its authority to an oversight panel of just seven lawmakers.
She is represented in the case by chief counsel Clay Britton, Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, and Lawrence attorney Lumen Mulligan.
Wichita attorney Bradley Schlozman and Kansas City, Mo., attorney Edward Greim filed a response to the lawsuit Friday on behalf of the LCC.
Schlozman and Greim accuse the governor of anticipating the lawsuit and preparing litigation “long before the order was sprung.”
"Religious institutions were abruptly targeted during Holy Week for harsh treatment, including, as the attorney general has pointed out, possible jail terms for worshipers,“ they said in the filing. ”That is utterly illogical."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka who serves on the LCC, objected to the selection of attorneys to represent the panel without calling a meeting.
“This is absolutely contrary to transparency,” Hensley said. “It is absolutely outrageous.”
Schmidt's office told the court he doesn't want to appear or intervene in the case. Still, the attorney general raised concerns with the scope of Kelly's authority.
"We all are in uncharted waters that may test the limits of emergency powers," the filing from Schmidt’s office said.
The filing also said the attorney general's recommendation that law enforcement officers and prosecutors ignore the governor's executive order remains in effect.
Inmates seized control Thursday of a cell house at the Lansing prison where an outbreak of COVID-19 infections put the population on edge and broadcast to YouTube the chaos of a riot in action.
Dozens of excited inmates can be seen breaking windows and destroying an administrative office amid loud and profane chaos.
“Y’all don’t want to give us no health care,” an inmate says. “This is what we do.”
So far, 12 inmates and 16 staff members at Lansing Correctional Facility have tested positive for the coronavirus. An additional seven offenders are under observation.
Corrections employees, boosted by backup from three other state prisons, deployed tear gas Thursday night to end an eight-hour standoff with the rioting inmates.
"We've launched an investigation into what took place and what can be done moving forward to ensure this doesn't happen again,“ Kelly said. ”Rest assured, my administration will complete that work, hold those responsible for the disturbance to account, and put in place any additional steps that are necessary to ensure that safety and order are maintained. We will learn from this."
Between 20 and 30 inmates initiated the disturbance about 3 p.m. Thursday, said Rebecca Witte, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. The men damaged property, including computers, security cameras and lights.
Witte said it was too early to say whether the incident was inspired by an outbreak of COVID-19, but the inspiration is made clear in the inmates’ video.
“No health care for this coronavirus,” one inmate screams.
“This is what happens when y’all got n****** going crazy,” another man says.
It wasn’t clear how the inmates obtained cellphones used for video.
"That will be part of the investigation process,“ Witte said. ”Unfortunately, cellphones are a common contraband item in prisons across the country.“
The riot took place in a medium security cell house with 169 inmates. Corrections employees were interviewing individuals about the incident.
After the riot began, prison staff quickly exited the building, Witte said. Reinforcements from Topeka, Ellsworth and El Dorado correctional facilities were called to the scene for backup.
At 11 p.m., staff deployed tear gas to take control of the situation. Witte said additional weapons were on hand but not used. Individuals were removed one by one and relocated to a unit in a new facility that is being built at Lansing.
Witte said two inmates suffered minor injuries. No staff members were hurt.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a lawsuit on behalf of inmates at Lansing and elsewhere who said they are being held in unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 outbreak. The lawsuit said Lansing inmates with symptoms of the coronavirus weren’t being tested because they had been threatened against reporting the illness by guards.
ACLU is asking for the expedited release of vulnerable inmates throughout the prison system who are nearing release date or committed minor crimes. The Supreme Court on Friday scheduled arguments in the lawsuit for April 15.
Corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda said Friday the agency has taken steps to limit the chance of spreading COVID-19 among prison populations, but “social distancing in our prisons is difficult.”
Concerns raised by inmates referenced in the ACLU lawsuit include close quarters for sleeping and eating.
"Our population is in close proximity to each another, and there's just not a lot you can do when it comes to sleeping quarters,“ Zmuda said. ”What we can do is try to keep them in groups so they're together, in cohorts, so they're not mixing in other parts of the institution."