Throughout the pandemic there was little oversight of gubernatorial or county health officer actions across the country. This led to countless examples of government overreach and arbitrary mandates. Churches were treated different than businesses, some group gatherings were limited or banned, and businesses had to close even if they implemented coronavirus precautions. The list goes on and on.
These actions by governors and other officials have crippled the economy and left many without a way to provide for themselves and their families. While it’s important for state leaders to have the ability to make quick decisions during an emergency, once the initial crisis passes the American people need to have a say in these policies that upend their lives.
The Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization in Wichita, Kansas, has spent years protecting the constitutional rights of all Kansans. After seeing the vast government overreach during the coronavirus, KPI launched a campaign to reform broken emergency management protocols and restore the constitutional rights of Kansans.
In October 2020, a Douglas County, Kansas health officer issued a county-wide emergency order requiring restaurants and bars with liquor licenses to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and to close their doors at midnight—including outdoor seating. These establishments had to comply even if they had implemented the proper coronavirus safety protocols. The arbitrary order allowed other businesses with indoor seating to remain open. It also banned to-go sales of alcohol after certain times but not to-go food sales.
For the Sandbar bar located in Douglas County, this was yet another burden in an already challenging year. Owner Peach Madl noted that if she isn’t able to hold normal business hours soon, her restaurant may not be able to survive.
On October 9, 2020, the Kansas Justice Institute, the legal arm of the Kansas Policy Institute, sued Douglas County on behalf of Madl and her business. KJI asserted this order disregards constitutional rights such as due process and equal protection.
Sam MacRoberts, Litigation Director of Kansas Justice Institute, added: “When an unelected, unaccountable health officer creates a restaurant and bar curfew regime, business owners should be afforded a due process hearing. It’s a matter of fairness. There’s no mechanism to challenge the restaurant and bar curfew order, and that should change.”
As the Sandbar lawsuit proceeded, KPI started their legislative effort to make dramatic reforms to Kansas’ Emergency Management Act (KEMA). KPI briefed key legislative leaders on the key issues, marketed the Sandbar case aggressively around the state, and drew attention to the ridiculous mandates through KPI’s media outlet, The Sentinel.
This combined effort resulted in the passage of SB 40. The first-in-the-nation legislation placed county health officers in an advisory capacity and strengthened county commissions, gave legislative bodies explicit oversight of continued emergency action, and ensured that all Kansans had due process rights when subject to shutdowns, mandates, and the like during an emergency. Notably, SB 40 placed the burden on the government to prove their order was narrowly tailored and used the least restrictive means to achieve its purpose.
For their success in bringing constitutional rights and checks and balances to emergencies in Kansas, the Kansas Policy Institute is a finalist in State Policy Network’s Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement, in the Biggest Win for Freedom category.