The Debrief: What does Sunday's Texas Supreme Court ruling mean for mask mandates?

Despite being in his favor, a decision Sunday by the Texas Supreme Court is far from a definitive win for Governor Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates, according to Texas appellate law specialist, attorney David Coale.

The ruling Sunday came in response to lawsuits filed by Bexar and Dallas Counties. Each had recently earned a temporary restraining order against the Governor's executive order, arguing he does not have the authority to strip local leaders of their ability to issue public health-related policies. Having received their temporary orders, both counties issued local mask requirements.

RELATED: Texas Supreme Court sides with Gov. Abbott, temporarily blocking Dallas County mask mandate

"On Sunday night, the Supreme Court said, 'all right, stop it; no one is going to enjoin the Governor's order right now.' What they want everyone to do is let the process continue. Have the next hearing, bringing witnesses, gather all the facts, and then if there’s still a dispute, bring it back," explains Coale.

In other words, the power was back with Governor Abbott's order as of Sunday night. At least for now.

"This was a very initial step," says Coale. "If anything, it signals there’s some difference of opinion on the court. The Supreme Court knows exactly how to resolve an issue as a matter of law on the very front end. They didn’t do that here. That’s to suggest somebody on the court—probably more than one—wants to see more about the facts. That’s frankly a little surprising. This court has pretty traditionally backed the governor and his assertions of the power of the governor's office."


At the core of this legal battle is whether the governor has the authority to suspend aspects of state law, as he did in his May executive order when he stripped elements of the Texas Disaster Act to effectively remove all city or county power to require mask-wearing. Harris County is among those who have sued, arguing Governor Abbott overstepped his authority by suspending laws enacted by the legislature.

RELATED: Temporary Restraining Order granted after Harris Co. files lawsuit challenging Governor’s executive order

Coale expects this case will result in a redefining of the Texas Disaster Act, which he says was primarily written in response to short-term emergencies. 

"It’s designed for hurricanes," he says. "It’s designed for a tornado; something that comes roaring in its one county, maybe a few counties, and they moved on down the road. It’s a very serious question: how much power does the governor have in times of disaster, and how long can he continue to exercise the power to the exclusion of other parts of our government.

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Bottom line: as of Monday, the battle over mask mandates in Texas is not over, and the legal grounds remain confusing.

"I’d put it this way: legally, the governor's order probably is in control and mask mandates are on shaky legal ground. Practically, if someone says 'look, I’m just trying to follow the what the County Judge says or the school superintendent says,' they are on, probably, pretty safe legal ground because if lawyers are arguing about it and you’re relying, in good faith, on what officially said, you’re going to be O.K. at the end of the day."


Those following this political drama should stay tuned: Coale warns things could move quickly, with a final bottom-line decision on Governor Abbott's executive order likely in the coming weeks.