KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — On Friday, Gov. Bill Lee signed a group of state laws into place restricting certain COVID-19 restrictions, including legislation prohibiting mask requirements in schools. This brings a question into play: will the new state laws trump federal orders, like the mask mandate in Knox County Schools?
Knox County Schools was previously ordered by a federal judge to implement a mask mandate. According to WATE Legal Analyst Greg Isaacs, “federal law and federal judges are superior to and preeminent over state judges and state legislation.”
Stewart Harris, a constitutional law professor at Lincoln Memorial University, said federal law always trumps state law. However, a Maryville College political science professor said it’s not ‘always’ the case, at least not until the law is challenged by federal court.
According to these professors, the issue at hand dates back to the early days of the United States of America.
“That’s right in Article VI of the Constitution. Which says that federal law is supreme, not withstanding to anything to the contrary in any state law, including the state constitution ,” Stewart Harris, with LMU, said.
Dr. Mark O’Gorman, with Maryville College, said Article VI started being called upon more a little later in history.
“It really wasn’t until you get to the second half of the 1800s with laws after the Civil War where you begin to see the process of what’s called incorporation,” O’Gorman said.
Then, when federal leaders were trying to end segregation nationwide, Article VI was used in a big way.
“We saw it most vividly usually during the Civil Rights discussion of 1950s and 60s, where suddenly you saw states very much trying to pass state segregation laws and the federal government says, ‘no our incorporation allows us to preempt this,” O’Gorman said.
“A lot of southern states had legal segregation and federal judges ordered them to desegregate, pursuant the Brown vs Board of Education, and ultimately, those federal orders prevailed,” Harris said.
Of course, Harris said, they had to prevail with a little more force in the case of President Eisenhower sending the Arkansas National Guard back to their barracks and bring in the 101st Airborne to enforce the federal ruling.
Both professors said they don’t believe, the issues of masks would bring that kind of action on. The argument now is — is it unconstitutional for the state to pass bills contradicting a federal order already in place?
O’Gorman said because Knox County Schools largely follows state regulations, but does accept state and federal funding, it’s gray area.
“That’s what it’s going to be at the end of the day. How the school district is interpreting the governor’s law and the governor’s mandates and try to see what’s going to happen,” O’Gorman said.
However, Harris said because a federal order was already in place, that order trumps any new state law. But, he did say the state bill isn’t pointless.
“That’s how laws get challenged. If Tennessee is serious about this, and wants to challenge this federal court order and wants to come out all guns blazing, it’s how you do it. You create a conflict between the national and state laws and then you go to court and litigate,” Harris said.
Essentially, the order or state bill has to be challenged in federal court, and whatever happens in federal court will be what schools and the state has to follow.
“There’s always a possibility that it will be reversed. However, again, having read the order and seen how reasonable it is and given the high stakes, and the children’s lives are at risk, I suspect that it will be upheld by the circuit court, and ultimately the Supreme Court if it goes that far,” Harris said.
Knox County school leaders said on Friday they would continue following the federal court order. A statement from Superintendent Bob Thomas said, “the masking provisions of the bill would not apply to Knox County Schools as long as we are under a federal direct court order.”
As for other schools in the state, a federal judge has issued an injunction preventing the state to restrict mask mandates in schools, according to a court order issued Sunday.
That injunction will stay in place until the next hearing on the new law banning mask mandates in schools on Nov. 19.
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